Slavery 101: Slate’s “History of American Slavery” Podcast

Slavery 101: Slate’s “History of American Slavery” Podcast

Screenshot 2016-02-01 at 8.43.34 AMIn the inaugural Slate Academy, Slate history writer Rebecca Onion, and Slate’s chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie offer a podcast series billed as the “college course you wish you’d taken.” Onion’s and Bouie’s course – The History of American Slavery – outlines the development of American slavery by focusing on individual stories of enslaved Africans. By structuring their podcast around nine enslaved people, including Anthony Johnson, Olaudah Equiano, and Charles Deslondes, Onion and Bouie highlight the distinctly human aspects of slavery. In addition, Onion and Bouie consult the foremost experts on American slavery, including Ira Berlin and Eric Foner, to help flesh out the complexities of the institution. The combination of vivid storytelling and academic rigor in The History of American Slavery makes the podcast series a valuable addition to the ever-growing corpus on American slavery.

Onion and Bouie begin with an important discussion about how language is employed in the study of American slavery. Their brief first episode entitled “Syllabus” – possibly a wink towards the renowned syllabus week? – taps into a current debate both inside and outside of the academy about the usage of terms such as “slave” and “enslaved person.” While Onion and Bouie concur that “enslaved person” better suits their purposes, they underscore the importance of closely defining historical terms and how those terms enter into public consciousness.

Similarly, Onion and Bouie are careful to dispel as many myths about American slavery as their nine podcasts allow. In particular, they target the many fallacies surrounding the Underground Railroad, Lost Causers insistence that black Confederate soldiers really did exist, and a disturbingly popular idea that there were degrees of freedom within slavery. Onion and Bouie successfully attack myths about slavery by framing each of these issues around the experience of a single enslaved person. The inclusion of primary documents, particularly slave narratives, offer Onion and Bouie the opportunity to present their audience with visceral cases of what slavery looked like for enslaved persons. One of particular interest was the case of Rose Herrera, who successfully sued for the freedom of her children after they had been moved to Cuba by her former owner.

Despite their focus on stories of individual slaves, Onion and Bouie are careful to deal with issues of exceptionality in slave accounts. By including a supplemental episode entitled “Office Hours” – featuring Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Onion and Bouie track the history of how scholars have used slave accounts and why they remain invaluable sources.

The premise behind the creation of The History of American Slavery is well-intentioned and mostly well-executed. Onion and Bouie synthesize the cutting edge of historical scholarship and package it in an accessible way for a wide audience. The series is clear, jargon-free, and serves as good listening for the morning commute or while at the gym. Not to mention, it’s reasonably priced (a $5 one-month subscription to Slate Plus will get you access to the podcast series as well as additional written content). For these reasons, The History of American Slavery podcast can serve as a valuable tool in a teacher’s toolbox. Undergraduate courses on American slavery would be particularly enhanced by offering this series as a supplement to primary and secondary source material.

This bring us to the question of whether the series was the college course that I wish I’d taken? The short answer is maybe. As a historian training in 19th century American history, I found parts of the series lacking, especially in Onion’s and Bouie’s lack of discussion on the transshipment of enslaved persons from the Caribbean to the American South. However, if I take off my historian’s hat and look at the broad value of the podcast, I think Onion and Bouie are performing an important public service. By ending the series with a symposium, Onion and Bouie ask a simple but pressing question: how can we get Americans to talk honestly about slavery? While there are no easy ways to change American understandings – or lack thereof – of slavery, Onion and Bouie begin a dialogue which can hopefully lead to open and candid discussion.

James Kopaczewski

James is a Ph.D. student at Temple University. He can be reached at

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