History Matters: Compromising How We Teach Slavery

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If you checked your Facebook feed early in October, there is a good chance you saw a news story about a textbook controversy in Texas. In case you missed it, here is what happened. A ninth grader opened his World Geography textbook from McGraw-Hill. He found a map labeled “Patterns of Immigration.” Next to the map was a text box reading, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and the 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”

The student contacted his mother about the page, who then spoke out about it publicly. The story quickly went viral on Facebook and other social media.

Characterizing the forced enslavement of millions of Africans under the category of “immigration” erases the violence and murder wrought by the slave trade. Describing enslaved people as “workers” likewise erases the involuntary nature of their forced toil and the daily violence that structured plantation enslavement.

Due to the outcry, McGraw Hill apologized for the wording, promised to change the online version of the textbook and also to send stickers with alternative wording to cover over the poorly chosen text box.

And maybe those stickers will help solve the problem of the language on that one textbook page. And anyway, why should residents of Illinois care about one textbook page down in Texas?

The History According to Texas

This textbook story is part of an alarming trend that won’t be so easily stickered over. In 2010 the Texas Board of Education approved new guidelines for history textbooks. The vote was bitterly partisan, with nine Republicans voting for the new standards and five Democrats standing against them. The board’s new standards sought to reverse what they termed a “liberal bias” in education. The standards deemphasized the roll of slavery in the Civil War. Instead the curriculum was to characterize the War as a matter of “States’ Rights,” in which slavery was a side issue. The textbooks were also to downplay mentions of Jim Crow laws or the Ku Klux Klan.

The only required primary sources for the Civil War included in the Texas high school curriculum are the inaugural addresses of President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. Neither of those sources mention slavery in relationship to the war. Many, many other documents do however focus on slavery as the cause of the war.

This includes Texas’ own declaration of secession, which cites protecting the institution of slavery as the main reason for leaving the Union. One paragraph from Texas’s announcement on leaving the United States read, “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.” Later the document reads, “By the secession of six of the slave-holding States, and the certainty that others will speedily do likewise, Texas has no alternative but to remain in an isolated connection with the North, or unite her destinies with the South.” This is just one of multiple primary sources that clearly lists slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War.

Many educators, both in Texas and beyond, protested these new standards, forcing the textbook companies to dial back some of the changes. In 2011, Texas passed a law that teachers could choose books not on the state approved list. However, the vast majority of schools still purchase their books from the School Board’s list.

There are five million students in Texas. The state has the second largest school population, behind California. A total of 48 million textbooks across subject matters are purchased in Texas each year. That market share means that Texas influences curriculum on a national scale, as textbook writers want their volumes to sell.

American Exceptionalism

But this attempt by conservatives to change how history is taught has not stopped in Texas. In 2014, the College Board released new national guidelines for the Advanced Placement exam in US History. AP courses allow high school students to prepare and take a test for college level credit. The new framework, amongst other things, places more emphasis on the histories of American women and minorities. It also has more of an international framework for teaching US history.

Conservative backlash quickly flared. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution in August 2014 calling the changes “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” In September 2014, students and teachers at four Jefferson County high schools west of Denver staged walkouts to protest local school board demands for a more “patriotic” teaching of American history.

In February of this year, the committee on education in the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted along partisan lines to pass House Bill 1380. It would ban the use of state funds for teaching AP history. The backers of the bill were angry that the new AP standards undermined what they called “American Exceptionalism.” Protests from teachers, parents and students who did not want the legislature deciding what is taught in their classrooms helped stop that bill. Similar protests have emerged in South Carolina and Texas.

What is at stake in all of these protests and counter protests is more than just a couple of pages in a history textbook, or a few questions on a test for college credit.

The subject of history, and particularly the history of race and slavery in America, has always been contentious ground. In the early twentieth century, the historical scholarship on the subject mostly treated the institution of slavery as relatively benign and promoted the racist idea of the inferiority of the African race. Many historians since then have worked to correct this record.

W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction

In 1935, the great scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his groundbreaking work Black Reconstruction in America as a powerful corrective to accounts that sought to denigrate the contributions of black Americans during the post-Civil War period.

Toward the end of his book, Du Bois attempted to explain why earlier histories failed to accurately wrestle with the histories of African Americans. He wrote, “We fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.”

Today we are faced with another push to “compromise with truth in the past:” To smooth over the tough questions in our national history. To tell our children easier stories about ourselves.

But we all must resist such urges. History matters. Because how can we hope to promote justice and equality in the present if we are not willing first to look unflinchingly at our past?

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