How history textbooks reflect America’s refusal to reckon with slaveryBreaking News
tags: slavery, education, textbooks, Vox
Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a North Carolina-based historian, journalist, and editor. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Longreads, Smithsonian, and Vice, among others.
“Textbooks are supposed to teach us a common set of facts about who we are as Americans ... and what stories are key to our democracy,” said Alana D. Murray, a Maryland middle-school principal and author of The Development of the Alternative Black Curriculum, 1890-1940: Countering the Master Narrative.
As textbooks show — through omissions, downright errors, and specious interpretations, particularly regarding racial issues — not everyone enjoys the perks of civic belonging or gets a fair shake in historical accounts. This is even true of textbooks used today — 400 years after Africans’ 1619 arrival, more than 150 years after emancipation — with narratives more interested in emphasizing the compassion of enslavers than the cruelty endured by the enslaved.
Textbooks have long remained a battleground in which the humanity and status of black Americans have been contested. Pedagogy has always been preeminently political.
From fast facts to black inferiority: how slavery has been portrayed historically in textbooks
The Hazen’s textbook framed Jamestown and its role in the development of US slavery as an inevitable matter of labor demand and economic pragmatism, a common argument in US school materials at the turn of the 20th century.
Yet that was just one school of thought. After slavery’s end in this country, many Southern-focused textbooks promoted a Lost Cause approach to Jamestown and slavery writ large, portraying the institution as part of a natural order. White Southerners created ideologically driven narratives that yearned for the Good Ole Days where whites sat atop the hierarchy and African Americans were faithful slaves. In this racist revisionism, they didn’t have to reckon with the new black citizen, voter, or legislator as nominal equals.
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