In my History 364 Class we are reading Major Problems of American Business History. Each chapter in the book includes a few short first-person essays followed by some secondary source analyses. Because of the discussions we have had in this class, I am beginning to scrutinize how I am learning in this history class.
This is an online class, so this book is literally the only medium I am exposed to when I begin to form my idea of “American Business History.” I am extremely concerned with the primary source selection that this textbook offers. You may have guessed, an overwhelming majority of the first-hand sources come from white males. Shocking. I find this especially agitating because the book deals with moments in history when groups of people are completely victimized by one economic trend or another. Trust me, the victims are not usually white males, yet we almost entirely get their perspective. For instance, here are the authors included in the chapter titled: “Doing Business in the Slave South”: a Georgia plantation owner, a Carolina Industrialist, a senator in the Confederate State’s Congress, a Virginia Iron Master, and Senator James Henry Hammond. Thankfully, we get one short account from Frederick Douglass of the horrors of the slave trade to keep me from going insane. But, 5/6 of the essays in a chapter that deals with one of the most sensitive traumas of our country’s history speak to the benefits of slavery! How are students going to be influenced by a book like this? It is a scary thought.
This brings me to an important question. Are the more equitable narratives not included because the authors of my history textbook do not believe they are important, or do they simply not exist. Probably the latter. You probably would be hard-pressed to find many 1850s primary sources from slaves that have been preserved. This is an unfortunate reality. This is why I love the mission statement of the Federal Writers’ Project. They are making a conscious effort to break down history marginalization by recording the life histories of every kind of person: “poor whites in the South; blacks who had achieved distinction; river bottom cultures; the early history of state universities; criminals condemned to death; rural and urban slums; consumers’ and producers’ cooperatives;” and more (Hirsch 165). I hope their work (and ours) will lead to the democratization of the history books of our future.
Hirsch, Jerrold. “Portrait of America.” (n.d.): n. pag. The University of North Carolina Press. Web.