Earlier this month, Roni Dean-Burren’s YouTube video blasting her son’s McGraw-Hill World Geography textbook went viral. Under the headline “Patterns of Migration,” an arrow points to America’s Black Belt region and states, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The same textbook also mentions that European indentured servants received little-to-no pay. This sparked outrage because the term “workers” implies compensation or voluntary employment and migration, not slavery.
As Dean-Burren said, “This is what erasure looks like.”
This is not an isolated oversight, but rather an intentional retelling of history. The State Board of Education in Texas passed a revised social studies curriculum in 2010, including all sorts of questionable claims and interpretations:
- Textbooks are required to include leading conservative groups from the 1980s and ’90s. There is no similar requirement for liberal or minority rights groups.
- The influential musical and cultural movements in America are rock ‘n roll and country music. Hip hop is not included because it is ”crude” and “inappropriate.”
- No mention made of Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, sharecropping, or Jim Crow.
- No mention of racial segregation, except for armed forces integration in 1948.
- States’ rights and sectionalism are listed as primary causes of Civil War, before slavery.
- Moses influenced the founding fathers.
- Students are encouraged to question the separation of church and state.
- The cause of Brown v. Board of Education was merely that “the buildings, buses, and teachers for the all-black schools were lower in quality.”
- Students must “understand how the free enterprise system drives technological innovation and its application in the marketplace,” and “explain why a free enterprise system of economics developed in the new nation, including minimal government intrusion, taxation, and property rights.”
Textbook publishers that want to be approved by the board must meet these standards. What makes it into a Texas textbook makes it into most of the country, because the state is the second-largest textbook market and publishers tend to cater to them.
McGraw-Hill responded to the “workers” controversy, stating they “conducted a close review of the content and agree that [the] language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves” and promised to “update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize that their work was done as slave labor. These changes will be reflected in the digital version of the program immediately and will be included in the program’s next print run.”
The books approved to reflect the revised curriculum were set to enter classrooms Fall 2015. The books are also to be used for the next ten years, so while McGraw-Hill’s statement about revising the next edition may be true, they have not informed the public of their timeline.
What’s the big deal? Is it really that bad? It’s just a bad word choice. It’s just a little biased. Who even remembers high school social studies?
Here is a quick overview of my educational experience in southeast Louisiana:
- Our coverage of black history was vague images of slavery, the invention of peanut butter, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
- My U.S. history teacher never clearly stated that Jim Crow ever happened, and certainly not the Ku Klux Klan.
- The Civil War happened because of states’ rights.
- My Civics teacher wrote on the board that no one could ever be realistically elected president of the United States if they were not white, Christian, and male.
I barely saw myself in my school books and needed answers as a young, black American in the South. I know better now, but a lot don’t. For those who always saw themselves validated, why bother with further investigation?
I still have a lot to learn. After the Charleston shooting and demands to remove the confederate flag from South Carolina’s state capitol, articles surfaced revealing that the Confederate flag was never the flag of the Confederacy. In fact, it was not displayed at all after the Civil War until the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. The peculiar timing of the flag’s reemergence speaks volumes to the true meaning behind it.
My teachers certainly never mentioned that bit of information, which probably explains why 66 percent of all white Americans, and 75 percent of all white Southern Americans, believe the confederate flag to be a symbol of Southern pride. And why 75 percent of all white Americans oppose removing Confederate fighter tributes from public places.
These statistics may seem shocking and disturbing, but perhaps more unsettling is the likely explanation as to why such views form: 48 percent of all Americans believe states’ rights to be the main cause of the Civil War.
In fact, only 46 percent of black Americans believe slavery to be the main cause of the Civil War over states’ rights. Evidently, lies become very powerful when replayed enough times.
Beyond discussion about the exact definition of the term “worker” and where the Confederate flag and monuments should or should not be, lies an important question: where do we go from here?
We need an accurate telling of our shared history, but not so we can angrily point fingers at white people. Anger and resentment do little to remedy our troubles if they do not lead to further action. History can retell every step that has led us to where we currently stand, but only if it is told properly. It’s impossible to discuss the complex web of structural inequality for African Americans without using a historical lens. How will we ever discuss, for example, wealth inequality between black and white Americans if students never even learn about Jim Crow? How can we discuss a solution if we are denied the proven facts that explain the problem in the first place?
In the best case scenario, this is the beginning of students and their families blasting the falsehoods of their new textbooks. Such actions would show that we will not be easily fooled. With the right pressure, this can lead to a holistic telling of American history. Without it, the lies and biases go unnoticed, implanting themselves in the minds of all our children.