In 2015, tensions surrounding the teaching of slavery rose from the classroom to the boardroom when textbook giant McGraw-Hill published a World Geography textbook that included a sanitized depiction of the victims of the Middle Passage as so many migrants.[i] Another book, Texas United States History published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and intended for eighth-grade students noted optimistically “some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly” while acknowledging, in a strategic, if insidious, use of the passive voice that “severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.”[ii]
Mural by Ernie Pryor, Oscar Ritchie Hall, Kent State University. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.
The seeds of that textbook controversy were sown years earlier when, in 2010, the Texas Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum that downplayed slavery as the cause of the Civil War and encouraged the teaching of unity, patriotic loyalty and American exceptionalism over social movements and what some regarded as the divisiveness of multiculturalism. Following this line of thought, the Republican Party of Texas announced in its official 2012 platform a strong opposition to the teaching of critical thinking skills, noting that higher order thinking skills are a mere cover for “behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” As a corrective to the ill effects of critical thinking, the platform called for a turn to school subjects that emphasize “the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded.”[iii]
More recently, Scholastic Books hastily shelved a children’s book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, after a massive backlash erupted over the book’s depiction of Washington’s slaves as happy, contented workers. Written in the voice of Delia, the young enslaved daughter of Hercules, one of the head cooks at Washington’s Mount Vernon, the book portrays the enslaved father and daughter as fretting over the president’s impending birthday celebration. “This cake has to be special,” Delia tells her father, “President Washington is the most famous person in all of America. Papa is the general of the president’s kitchen.” Missing from the main narrative of the book is the fact that this same Hercules—whose pride and contentment in his life as a slave is everywhere evident in the book—used the occasion of George Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday to make his escape from Mount Vernon to the North.[iv]
The controversies over these and related incidents inspired a national debate about the teaching of history at the moment of an exceedingly vituperative political season, on the one hand, and corporate-style educational models, on the other. Perhaps most intriguing, this debate highlights the complicated and conflicted interests of large multinational textbook corporations, parents, students, and political ideologues in a fight for hearts, minds, and money in an expansive educational market.
Of course, none of this raging debate is new. Perhaps more than any other subject in American history, the teaching of slavery has long been a battlefield. Some eighty years ago, famed scholar W. E. B. Du Bois set about to right the wrongs of American historiography on slavery and Reconstruction. Writing in Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois exposed the methods by which “the facts of American History have…been falsified” in order to cover the national shame and sin of slavery. The penultimate lines of Black Reconstruction still ring an eerie echo in this, the season of our own discontent. He writes: “This is education in the Nineteen Hundred and Thirty-Fifth year of the Christ; this is modern and exact social science; this is the university course in ‘History 12.’”[v]
These issues have long been close to my own heart as I teach and write in the field of American slavery. But they have taken on a new meaning for me in my role as a father watching my son navigate the public school system in New York State. Here’s a story from the front lines:
Once upon a time, in February, my son was conscripted to participate in a school play intended to celebrate Black History Month. Published by Scholastic Books, the play, “A Triangle of Trade,” written by Marci Applebaum and Jeff Catanese is meant to introduce students to the Columbian Exchange, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and the origins of plantation slavery.[vi] There are cell phones in the play—cell phones in the era of the slave trade. Yes, I know. But let’s overlook that for a moment. The phones are little more than a hack literary device to allow traders, heads of state and religious leaders to communicate in real time across the Atlantic Ocean. My son, one of only a couple of African Americans in the class, was cast in a double role, as both a captured African intended for sale and as a West African coastal chief eager to profit from the slave trade. Yes, I know. The Black kid plays the African. Twice. Obvious and predictable, but let’s overlook that for the moment as well.
The real concern begins with the play’s depiction of Columbus who, we learn, has traveled to the Americas with food and blankets in hopes of initiating trade with Native Americans. There is no mention of the murder and sexual exploitation that attended the arrival of Columbus, and no suggestion of the labor camps that Columbus inaugurated. And there is no real explanation of what in the world Native Americans did for food and warmth before the fortuitous arrival of Columbus who brought a bounty of goodies and warm blankets. (Caribbean nights must be cooler than advertised.) Meanwhile, on the African coast, European traders first offered to pay wages to African workers shipped to the Americas, warning, “We won’t be able to pay them much until we begin making money.” But the African coastal chief—my son—would hear nothing of it: “Don’t worry about paying them. If the goods you bring me are rich enough, I’ll let you take all the workers you need.”[vii]
Later, as a new age of Enlightenment dawned, European traders informed African tribal leaders that the slave trade would soon end. “Um, I have some bad news,” the British trader told his African trading partner, “the people have spoken and I have no choice but to stop the slave trade.” Inconsolable, the African chief lamented the end of the trade and with it, Africa’s best hope for financial security: “But that means our African nations will remain poor,” the despondent chief tells the British trader.[viii] Back in the Americas, a hopeful slave thinks that the end of the trade will spell the end of his own enslavement: “Does this mean I can live as a free man?” he asks. But the planter dashes all hopes: “No, Jacob, I’m sorry, but slavery is still legal here. We would lose too much money if we allowed you to be free.” Still hoping against hope, Jacob asks, “Can I least use your cell phone to call my family back in Africa?” “Sorry, Jacob, slaves aren’t allowed to use the phone.”[ix]
Once upon a time, in February, my son starred in a school play. Sometimes I hate Black History Month. Sometimes, I really do.
[i] Manny Fernandez and Christine Hauser, “Texas Mother Teaches Textbook Company a Lesson on Accuracy,” New York Times, Oct. 5, 2015.
[ii] Ellen Bresler Rockmore, “How Texas Teaches History,” New York Times, Oct. 21, 2015.
[iii] Peter Wood, “What Were They Thinking,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 6, 2012.
[iv] Ron Charles, “Free Speech Groups Defend ‘A Birthday Cake for George Washington,’” Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2016; idem, “Scholastic Defends Its Free-Speech Credentials,” Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2016.
[v] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860‒1880 (1935; New York, 1962), 728.
[vi] Marci Applebaum and Jeff Catanese, “A Triangle of Trade,” in idem., Colonial America (New York, 2003), 25‒37.
[vii] Ibid., 29.
[viii] Ibid., 34.
[ix] Ibid., 35.