Tag Archives: Civil War

The Mathematics of Slavery and the Classroom; or, an Open Letter to Rochester Grammar School

It’s 2017.  That’s 210 years since England abolished the slave trade, and 152 years since the abolition of slavery in the United States—I did the math. Other people are also doing mathematical problems involving slavery, as evidenced on Twitter this week when the following assignment surfaced from Rochester Grammar School in Kent asking students to calculate the best business deal they could get spending £100 on slaves.


I would love for someone to tell me that this is not a real assignment . . .

The idea that trading in humans could be seen as a reasonable school assignment is part of a wider problem.  Recently, I took MA students to Speke Hall outside of Liverpool, where they were told that the money to pay for the hall came from “farming” in the West Indies—despite the fact that one of the coats of arms in the Oak Parlor of the house has three Black people’s heads on it.  This happened less than ten miles from the International Slavery Museum, where they have a painting of a slave ship named the “Watt”—which also happened to be the name of one of the Speke Hall families.


The coat of arms of “Watt of Speke” with three African heads on the top. But their sugar plantations were maintained by “farmers”.

As a former teacher of mathematics (yes, this was how I started my adult working life), I am sympathetic to the notion that children should be given “real” mathematics problems to solve.  I spent enough time as a child figuring out how old someone was if they were a quarter of their grandmother’s age now and twenty years from now they would be half their mother’s age (why couldn’t you just ask them how old they were?) to grow up despising mathematics.  In fact, this is why I got the job teaching third and fifth graders the subject; the experimental school valued philosophical understanding of concepts and real-world problems.  I agree, too, that an integrated curriculum is one of the best ways to accomplish this kind of deep understanding of mathematical concepts.  So I’d like to offer Rochester Grammar School some alternatives to their assignment.  My suggestions incorporate not only mathematical and historical concepts, but integrate the literature curriculum as well.


The cost of escaping was more than a mathematics problem.

Students might, for example, look at Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke 2017).  This story is a fictionalized account of married slaves, the wife being light-skinned enough to “pass” for white.  She dressed up as a white slave-owner who “owned” her husband in order to escape north to freedom. Despite Rosa’s light skin, they could not have made the journey without money.  Landman writes,

Over the years Benjamin had been allowed to take on extra carpentry work and he got to keep a little of the money people paid for that.  As for me, well, there were times that Mr Cornwell’s conscience bothered him some.  He’d slip me a few coins, tell me to get myself ‘something pretty’.  But I had no need of ribbons or frills.  I put every last cent in a jar . . . It was against the law to sell anything to a slave without his master’s permission, but there were places that turned a blind eye to that.  They’d charge twice the price for goods that were half the quality, but they’d do it” (25).

There are multiple opportunities for mathematical story problems in this passage alone—not to mention the potential for powerful discussions about the difference between the law and justice.


Are rich people just rich because they manage their “purchases” better? Illustration by Frank T. Merrill from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

If Rochester Grammar School preferred a “classic” literary text, they could look at Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a novel set during the American Civil War that does not in fact mention slavery at all.  Teachers might read my article, “Anything to Suit Customers: Antislavery and Little Women” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.1, to get some background into why slavery disappeared in the novel, and then lead a discussion about the economics of publishing in an ideologically-divided nation (a not untimely lesson to have in this era).  The absence of slavery in the novel could then be compared with the 1994 film version, in which Meg’s anti-slavery wardrobe is compared to that of her rich friends who are not bothered by such scruples as social justice.


This page from Plant Hill Arts College students’ “To Be Free is Very Sweet”: The Life of Mary Prince shows that school-age people can understand the realities that come with the mathematics of slavery.

Alternatively, they could do what I often did as a teacher, and ask the students to come up with their own mathematics problems.  They might use as a model the book produced by students from Plant Hill Arts College in Manchester, “To be free is very sweet”: The Life of Mary Prince (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust, 2010). The students, who wrote and illustrated the text, were keenly aware of the mathematics of slavery, in which people could be bought and sold to enrich plantation owners, and families could be torn in half—or, in Mary Prince’s case, in quarters.  And unlike the Rochester Grammar School assignment, the students at Plant Hill Arts College recognized that the mathematical facts had emotional and physical consequences for real people.

Children need to be taught about slavery, and they need to understand it in a deep, rather than surface-level, way if they are ever to grapple with the continuing racial inequalities that exist in former slave-owning nations.  But treating slavery as a mathematical problem replicates the arguments made by slave-owners in the West Indies and the southern states of the US, who claimed—rightly, as it happens—that the economies of these regions would tank if slavery was abolished.  But you would not teach children mathematics by having them calculate how to purchase drugs, or illegal guns, or children for trafficking, at an economical price.  We have to see slavery for what it is: robbery.  And one of the best ways to open children up to the true mathematics of slavery is through reading.  As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his Narrative, “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”  The mathematics of slavery has never been more clearly expressed.


Her Contraband: Diversity and Louisa May Alcott


Yesterday (November 29th) was Louisa May Alcott’s birthday (happy 183rd!). Some years ago, I wrote an article about why slavery was absent from Alcott’s most famous book, Little Women (1868). Although the first half of the novel is set during the Civil War, and the March girls’ father is a chaplain with the army, the issue that engulfed the United States in war and threatened its union does not form a focus for the story. The Alcotts, were well-known abolitionists, and even admitted an African-American child to Bronson Alcott’s school at one point; Louisa counted abolition as one of her causes, along with feminism—although she tended to embrace feminist causes more openly in her work, both because slavery was abolished by the time she found success as a children’s writer, and because she could relate more directly to women’s causes. She did include reference to slavery in Little Women, but cautiously. She had learned from past experience what it meant to be a public supporter of abolition.



Abolitionists were feared after John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry–but Alcott admired Brown and wrote about him positively.

In 1863, Alcott published two works that directly dealt (at least in part) with slavery: her autobiographical sketch of her own wartime nursing experiences, Hospital Sketches, and a story, “My Contraband,” published in The Atlantic (which supported abolitionist causes). In both these stories, the white woman who is the main focus of the narrative is an abolitionist, but is aware of how that makes her appear in the eyes of most people in the nation (north and south). Nurse Faith Dane, in “My Contraband,” is asked to take on a rebel patient and an African-American “contraband” (a slave captured by the Union forces and used by them, like other goods and property). She agrees, saying, “some of these people think that because I’m an abolitionist I am also a heathen, and I should rather like to show them, that, though I cannot quite love my enemies, I am willing to take care of them.” In her account of her own nursing, Hospital Sketches, Alcott recalls being seen by a fellow nurse cuddling an African-American baby: “my comrade henceforth regarded me as a dangerous fanatic”. Fanatics, and heathens, and those publicly perceived as such, did not write literature for children. Despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation, promoted and supported by abolitionists, was signed by Lincoln in 1863, war-weariness and fear of violence began to affect the public view of the anti-slavery campaigners. Race riots broke out in New York following the proclamation, when some white soldiers found out they might have to serve with African-Americans. Freedom was one thing; race-mixing (of any kind) something completely different.

Harris figure 29Image from the Race Riots of 1863 (New York Historical Society archives).

The end of the war only intensified this feeling. Former slaves were now free to run from the Ku Klux Klan, which had been formed in 1866; race riots broke out across the South that same year. Alcott revised Hospital Sketches for a new publisher to make the book more nationally-acceptable; Roberts Brothers asked her to remove many of the harsher references to Confederate soldiers. The national mood was nervous; those who had embraced abolition were silenced by the racial violence that regularly cropped up around the country, and by the loud calls to “heal the nation” and forget the South’s past wrongs.



From the Roberts’ Brothers edition of Hospital Sketches–note the sympathetic portrayal of the rebel soldier, and the caring nurse watched over by Lincoln.

The Boston publishing firm who republished Hospital Sketches would later ask Alcott to write another story, this time a girls’ story. Alcott famously didn’t want to, but wrote it for the money; her mother was sick and Alcott longed for the independence that money could bring. She was writing a book to order, and Roberts Brothers had already made it clear that they did not want anything that would enflame racial tensions. For most of its history, the novel has been viewed as semi-autobiographical, but even her young childhood was far more radical than any of the incidents in Little Women. The African-American that the Alcotts admitted to their school almost ruined the family: when Alcott’s father really admitted African-American Susan Robinson to his Temple School in the 1830s, the other pupils left. The Alcotts were forced to close the school and leave Boston, and Alcott’s mother predicted “they were likely to starve”. Alcott inverts this in Little Women, however. When Jo admits a “merry quadroon” into her school at the very end of the novel, she can finally reap the rewards of virtue. Her mother predicts that her “harvest will be a good crop.” Coming as it does after the end of the war and just a couple of years after Walt Whitman had, in “Leaves of Grass,” embraced the reunion of America through a description of the autumn harvest, Alcott’s image is poignant. The nation, as represented by Jo’s school of boys from all walks of life, has hope that reconstruction may be a success.



A happy harvest is predicted for Jo’s multi-racial school.

Alcott herself never had much contact with African-Americans, and her real-life experience of abolition had shown her that abolitionists were shunned by society, regarded as potentially dangerous. She would work for the benefit of slaves before and during the war, and for freed blacks after the Civil War ended, but only when her work did not result in the impoverishment of her own family; she would not repeat her father’s “mistakes”. But she did provide a vision in Little Women of a different kind of society, one in which those who supported causes like abolition would succeed, financially and morally, and the nation would prosper because of it. It was not the vision of reform that she had experienced, but it was a brighter prospect to offer the child reading public. And unlike the work of today’s birthday boy (happy 180th, Mark Twain), it was packaged in a way that was more acceptable to the children’s book-buying parents.



Is Huck advising Jim to light out for the territories?

If you’re interested in reading my article (which discusses Alcott’s novel and abolition in more detail), here is the citation: “Anything to Suit Customers: Antislavery and Little Women.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.1 (2001): 33-38.