Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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1/16 of Your Blood

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


This is an episode about race and it's important to understand that race is a signifier. It's not something that's biological, which is a big mistake a lot of people make. It's not in your DNA. My DNA is probably closer to someone from Kolkata, than somebody here in the United States. The thing is, in the United States race has become a significant signifier. It's something we inherited from the Europeans, from the European colonizers. And it was intentionally designed to create difference, to create an other. It's something that historically has been a great deal, and it's what we're going to investigate in this episode today.

It's wasn't simply branding people slaves that made slavery so insidious. It was the stamp of degradation and inferiority that really brought about the worst part of it. Also, what that led to, was incorporating those things into the legal system, and really classifying black people as shadow and not as property. The native Americans were treated similarly, but they were seen as savages and as heathens, but more as in the way. They weren't valuable the way slaves were because the economics of slavery. So the African Americans became part of the slave system, part of the legal system which enforced their enslavement. It led to their not being allowed to get education. It led to them not being able to protect their families. And these black codes as they were called, just re-enforced the system of degradation and inferiority culminating in the 1857 case; Dred Scott. The Dred Scott case in which he was ruled, in fact that every African American, free or slave, was not a citizen in the United States, was in fact a chattel property.

And that's the real insidious legacy of slavery that we still live with today.

If we're going to analyze slavery, let's use our analytical tool, the old good old G-GREASES acronym. Because that gives us a nice frame to analyze slavery. It also gives us again, that tool that we want to use when we write the document based question, or the free response essay.

So if we look, Geography, obviously slavery predominantly in the south. However it's important to note that in colonial times, there were slaves in the north. It just wasn't as profitable for the north to have slaves. And slowly but surely, especially because of religion, things like that, it disappeared in the north. In terms of the government, the key thing to recognize is that, slavery demanded compromises over and over again. Starting with the writing of the constitution, the 3/5 compromise in which the south demanded that every five slaves count as three people for representation in the House of Representatives. In the same formula, but the north in order to put the union together, compromised. The Missouri compromise in 1820, the compromise of 1850.

So in terms of legalisms, compromising on the government level, there really was this notion that somehow the slaves that when they come out of Africa, were Pagans or Heathens, and they had to be Christianized. So there was a strong, kind of religious aspect to slavery. And sometimes, very often which was used as a justification, that we were bringing these Heathens to Christianity. Economics of course is the heart and soul of slavery. This is what it's about. It's not just cheap labor, it's free labor. And if you're in business let's face it nothing beats free labor.

Art and Architecture, this is something that often gets overlooked. But Africans-Americans, even in slavery contributed a huge amount. They painted portraits of their masters' families, the wrought iron work. If you go to south Carolina and look at the incredible wrought iron sculpture and work there. Benjamin Banneker designs the city of Washington DC. He's an architect in the late 19th century. So the contribution of African workers to art and architecture throughout our history, is enormous.

Science and technology, the whole economy of textiles and weaving incorporates the African-American culture. Education, of course early on there were laws. There were slave codes that prohibited giving an education to African American people. White people were not allowed to teach them to read and write. And probably the person I would tell you to look up, to see why they were so afraid, is Frederick Douglass. Fredrick Douglass' speeches are brilliant. And if you read the narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, they will be listed in the bonus materials, it really shows why there was a great fear in educating Africans, because they very clearly wouldn't want their freedom.

Social cultural values, probably the greatest contribution here is one of the great American art forms that comes out of originally the slaves out in the fields, that becomes the gospel music of the early slave churches. And it evolves into of course jazz and the blues, which later becomes rock and roll, hip-hop, rap, etcetera. But, the truly American art form of music, comes out of this slave culture.

So, by using the G-GREASES acronym to analyze slavery, we get a lot of information, again in a very short amount of time, very useful in your DBQ and your free response essay.

But very useful to kind of grease up your own thinking, and get your mind going and have some fun with history.

So the slaves developed a really thriving underground culture. And pretty much against all odds, in many ways even today, people talk about playing the race card. And race is still a huge issue in the United States. So, the challenge here, the ideas that you need to put into action, is to really think about how will the United States deal with the race issue in the 21st century. We've got some interesting events happening of course with the 2008 election and Barrack Obama's candidacy, which I'll talk about at a later point. But coming out of the background of slavery and oppression, where the blues were created, the race issue is something that America is destined to live with.

So your challenge is, and the ideas for you to put into action are, how do you think we're going to deal with it in the 21st century? Given that, one way that we might do that, is to do a survey. How many times do you encounter race during the day? Each day on TV, on the internet, at school, on the street and in what ways? It might be really interesting for you to start to record that. What do you see on television, in the movies, in your video games, in the music you listen to? What are the references to race? What do you see? And then, what I would recommend is you analyze that. You analyze that in historical terms, and also projecting ahead. The real question is, where do we fit in at this point? Why is race still such a huge issue in the United States?

Why is it still the issue that people don't want to talk about, that they are afraid of? Why won't we bring up issues about privilege, about white people having more privilege? Why is it still such a hot button issue?

But it really requires that you to do some serious thinking and research. Because I'll tell you something, if you really think about it, and you analyze it, you go back and use that little G-GREASE chart and maybe apply it to present day situation, you may find, that you've got some really interesting ideas and information that will not only help you with the DBQ, and the free response essay, but really help you to figure out where do you fit in and how does race fit in to the big picture.

So, I think if you do that again, you might have some fun with history. But you might also find that you're really thinking pretty seriously about some of the most important issues we've got on the table. So with that said we're going to head out now.

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