His lectures bring back my fond days as a graduate student in American Studies at Yale University and the opportunity to hear the lectures of historians John Blassingame, Edmund Morgan and David Brion Davis among others. Two years after the publication of my first book (in which slavery is discussed in some detail) in 1980 and 1981, I got my first real chance to study slavery and its consequences in a serious way in a world class library system--via access to primary sources, and the very best of secondary sources, and moreover to learn to know the difference.
Listening to his descriptions of the scholarship of Charles Beard as a progressive historian who saw slavery and the free north as two competing economic systems caused me to recollect that in 11th Grade at the New Lincoln School, we read Charles Beard and Walt Whitman as part of our core curriculum on American history and literature.
I couldn't quite get my fingers around this approach, was somewhat hurt and confused by it. So much else was going on in my life and my body (I was 15) and there's a particular way in which your mind can wander when you are a teenager in a classroom. and I remember being frustrated by the lack of talk about the slaves or even abolitionism. My teacher that year was named Mac Carpenter. I wish I had had Beisel and Moby Dick (a book I would learn to love some ten years later) instead but had been turned off by the idea that a book about a whale wouldn't be girly enough. I had no idea who I was then.
Nonetheless, I have continued to follow the fields of American slavery and abolitionism, as well as the new scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade with the maps and ship manifests. I just love all that stuff. My reading in these areas comes out of a true passion for the subject matter and the writing in this field, rather than as a necessity of my teaching. It has been my good fortune for my study to have occurred during the period of the greatest development in this field of study. Blight's lectures are a product of this development of study, highly listen-able, and providing as good a beginning as any to the field--knowledgeable regarding the latest transatlantic and colonial scholarship and yet (as he might say) firmly rooted in a deeply Americanist perspective.
Knew him first by his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which I encountered via my grad student (presently Professor of African American Studies at Lehman College) Anne Rice. Then a few years later I shared a stage with him on D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation at the New School but it was a crowded program and I can't recall what he said at all. I tried to talk about the music which was written for the movie. I still had him pegged as someone who was much more interested in the contemporary consequences of the Civil War.
The next time was my discovery that David Blight was a Professor of History at Yale University via this series of lectures on slavery and reconstruction offered as part of Open University online, based on a year long course as taught at Yale University in 2007.
I fell in love with it not because I agreed with and celebrated each word, but rather because of its thoroughness, its simplicity and clarity, its fascination with the literature produced by former slave and white Americans, its intensity, its contextualization of abolitionism within the larger context of the myriad causes of Civil War. His is not the African American perspective, which has been a major influence in slavery scholarship in the past few decades. And it isn’t the White Southern perspective either, which seems to me the focus of the Ken Burns’ documentary version of the Civil War and that of the Civil War re-enactors Blight describes in his book on the topic. But rather this is finally an accessible Americanist and centrist re-telling of the many stories that make up this great war and its immediate consequences, especially in regard to the Reconstruction Era.
His delivery is stunningly and entertainingly folksy at times but not Southern folksy, maybe rather mid-Western folksy to the degree that it becomes part of the content. What better voice could one find to represent the collective madness that descended upon the American republic (as its borders spread West) mid-19th century and resulted in the collective genocidal impulse Americans visited upon themselves in the form of its Civil War.
I will attempt to make selections from specific lectures to sample in my classes and to illuminate the content of my courses on “Slavery and the Failure of Reconstruction” as a FIQWS and my World Humanities course 102.