Dale Tomich, professor of sociology, is showcasing years of research in an exhibit at the University Art Museum while using the exhibit to teach one of his classes.
The exhibit, “Plantation Places: Cotton, Sugar, Coffee and the Making of Nineteenth-Century Slaveries,” features 130 visual images that Tomich collected over four years with a group of international scholars. The interdisciplinary project, funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation, allowed the scholars to study the function and representation of plantation spaces in Brazil, Cuba and the Lower Mississippi Valley.
“We looked at how the commodities sugar, cotton and coffee emerged and changed the landscape of the plantation and the organization of the land,” Tomich said. “Books about slavery tend to be about master and slave relations, not about geography. We inverted that idea and looked at images to see how geography and the plantation space shaped what slavery was like.”
Tomich’s class for students in the Binghamton Scholars Problem, Plantation Landscapes, encourages students to use the images in the exhibit to view slavery in terms of what slave systems produced and the geographical landscape. Students in the course will all write research papers that will be made into a book.
“Only a few of the students in the class are history majors, but there is something here that appeals to everybody,” Tomich said. “There are so many different connections that can be made, so students are free to make their own interpretations. We look to the images to find out what is behind them. In this course, students are learning by learning how to see.”
The images, Tomich said, reveal truths about how plantation life changed over time. During the 19th century, slavery was revolutionized as part of the growing and competitive world economy. Industrialization caused a reorganization of the plantation to emphasize maximum productivity.
“Maximum productivity governed everything,” he said. “It is about the extortion of human labor based on calculated productivity and about forcing slaves to produce more and more on a larger scale. Everything is a constant flow of movement around extensive land.”
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