Children spend a lot of time reading textbooks, of which not all are created equal. Some are painfully out of date, such as the Colorado textbook used by students in 2019 that went only as far as the Bill Clinton administration. Think back to all that’s happened since then…
Yet, even pre-Clinton history has gotten short shrift in many school districts. When it comes to explaining—or even acknowledging—the most hypocritical blot on American democracy, U.S. textbooks have a history of avoidance and neglect. In an enlightening article in Vox, North Carolina-based historian, journalist, and editor, Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee, recounts just how pitifully children’s textbooks have explained slavery in the United States over the last 200 years.
As is reasonably well known, 20 Africans were captured in their native land 400 years ago, hauled across the Atlantic, and dumped in a grungy British colony called Jamestown. Then, according to Hazen’s Elementary History of the United State: A Story and a Lesson (1903),
“The settlers bought them… and found them so helpful in raising tobacco that more were brought in, and slavery became part of our history.”
Amen. But not according to Dr. Greenlee, who bemoans how slavery has been portrayed historically in textbooks—that is, with error, omission, and little to no recognition of black humanity.
A typical example is A Child’s History of North Carolina, published around 1916, which focused on slavery’s profitability and expunged its violence. According to this textbook, the enslaved people were happy, and Southern slave owners were, at best, reluctant masters.
Black writers tried to correct these errors even before the turn of the 20th century. In 1890, Edward A. Johnson, a black North Carolina lawyer, published his own textbook, A School History of the Negro Race in America from 1619-1819.
A teacher for 11 years, Johnson observed, “omission and commission on the part of white authors, most of whom seem to have written exclusively for white children, and studiously left out the many creditable deeds of the Negro. … But how must the little colored child feel when he has completed the assigned course of U. S. History and in it found not one word of credit, not one word of favorable comment for even one among the millions of his foreparents who have lived through nearly three centuries of his country’s history!”
Black accomplishment is what’s missing in black history. Children are taught that the first slaves arrived in 1619, then BOOM! slavery arrived, the Civil War happened, and slavery was over. How those slaves contributed—albeit unwillingly—to the growth and development of the United States is left unsaid. The fact that men and women of color were forced to build mansions, plaster walls, plant rice, tobacco and cotton, drive carriages, wash clothes, tan leather, sail ships, nurse babies, lay roads, cut timber, cook food—name it and they did it—all without a single cent in pay (unless allowed to hire themselves out) goes without recognition in American textbooks.
Textbooks have long reflected the political climate and been used selfishly in cultural wars, but some states, thankfully, are changing their approach. Texas, which once approved a school textbook that named Moses (of 10 Commandments fame) as a Founding Father, is one of them. This year, middle and high school students in Texas will learn that slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War, not sectionalism and states’ rights as were previously taught.
Today there are several good resources for teachers to learn from and use that are not hardbound texts, such as:
-the recent 1619 Project from the New York Times;
– online readings lists, such as the Ferguson syllabus, about a variety of topics dealing with race,
“There’s always a group of teachers who will teach the curriculum. But there’s one teacher in every department who’s engaged in upper-level discussions about how to create a curriculum that matters to their students,” says Alana D. Murray, a Maryland middle-school principal and author of The Development of the Alternative Black Curriculum, 1890-1940: Countering the Master Narrative.
Please, be that teacher.