It’s Monday! What are you reading? March 11th., 2013 – Master George’s People

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading is hosted by Jen and Kellee At Teach Mentor Texts

Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Sally’s Bookshelf
The March Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers

I think the most powerful, and most important, bit of teaching I do all year is our unit on slavery and life in both the North and South just before the Civil War.  The truth of course, is that slavery was part of our nation’s history long before the Civil War.  In fact, it was an issue our founding fathers deliberately chose to avoid grappling with even as they wrote those famous words about all men being created equal and being endowed with unalienable rights.  And of course, a number of our most revered founding fathers were slave owners themselves, and profited mightily from the labors of the human beings they owned, traded for goods, and  sold away from their children and spouses.  My students are  shocked, bewildered and outraged by the hypocrisy of these men, even as they admire the way in which they guided the young nation through revolution, independence and this experiment of democracy.  History is complicated, and for many of my sixth graders, this is the first time they begin thinking about history in a critical, analytic way.  It is an important journey, and I am always on the lookout for books and movies that I can use in this investigation.

Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation by Marfe Ferguson Delano, with photographs by Lori Epstein is a wonderful new book  which is exactly what I need for this unit of study.
George Washington became the owner of ten human beings when he was just eleven years old himself.  In his early years, he was very much the Virginia plantation owner – used to buying, selling and trading what he considered to be his property.  He even took part in the raffle of slave children in Williamsburg in 1769 – a moral low point.  The Revolutionary War changed Washington’s attitudes in some ways.  During the war, he commanded brave African-American soldiers, black men hoping to win equality through the example of their stellar service – and Washington, according to the author, must have “recognized the irony of his position: He was leading the struggle for the revolutionary ideals of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, while he himself continued to hold fellow human beings in bondage.”  But ,Washington was a man of his times, and even though he tried to freed his slaves upon his death, he continued to profit from their free labor at his beloved Mount Vernon while he lived.  
This beautifully illustrated book takes us though Washington’s life as it related to slaves and the running of Mount Vernon.
We learn how integral slaves were to the every day life of continued prosperity of Mount Vernon.  We learn who some of these men and women were, how their lives intertwined with the lives of Washington as well as of the new nation.  And we see photographs of Mount Vernon today, a place were costumed interpreters bring history alive everyday so that we can experience a bit of  history as it really was – complex, complicated, full of ironies and terrible every day sacrifices.

16 thoughts on “It’s Monday! What are you reading? March 11th., 2013 – Master George’s People

  1. Watching your students take in the information and process it is a transformation of thinking that is interesting to watch and nudge them further. This looks like a great book to push them into considering the norms of the time.

  2. I LOVE George and it's wonderful that your students are getting more of the fabric than we did. This is my issue with Lincoln. Spielberg had the chance to destroy stereotypes about the role of blacks in their own advocacy for equality and he refused to open the door. BK

  3. We read this at school recently and it was a very interesting read! We loved the illustrations in the book too. thanks for sharing!-Reshama

  4. Hi Tara, my daughter would be in sixth grade in a few months' time – and since she goes to an American school here in Singapore, I have no doubt that they would be discussing some of these pointers/issues. Will definitely try to find this book that you just recommended and read it myself – as I find myself needing to brush up more on American history to guide her further. I love how you shared some of the complex issues that arise from political leaders' noble intentions and how this may not be a true reflection of their deeds – the disparities, inconsistencies, and the very human foibles that surround policy-making and politics in general. I'm sure it's an interesting classroom discussion to say the least.

  5. I just read The Hemingses of Monticello about Sally Hemings and her family and Thomas Jefferson and his relationships to and with his slaves. There's a moment when Washington has some very specific questions about how to work around the laws in Philadelphia — even if it means fudging the truth — so that he'll be able to keep his slaves. It's a really tiny moment in a ginormous book, but it struck me. Washington's reputation of being unable to tell a lie needs a little asterisk next to it … "*except when lying will enable him to keep slaves." It's really wonderful that you're working on this with your students. These are lessons we never would have had when I was in school. The fact that your students will be having these conversations now can only help them grow into adults who will be able to look at questions and issues from more than one perspective. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  6. Yes, this is shared in Master George's People, too. I will return to it when we do our unit on slavery and craft a chalk talk about this- morality can be self serving and disregard justice, right? It is so interesting to pose these questions and get my kids to think deeply about these issues. They are our citizens of tomorrow, after all!

  7. I love non-fiction! I have been to Mount Vernon once so it would be really interesting to read this book and be able to visualize and make connections between what I saw and the information shared in the book. Thanks for sharing!

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