It has been said that learning history also helps us to learn from our mistakes. “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it,” right? This seems like a straightforward enough task, but consider this question: what are we to do if the history we are learning is flawed?
Recently, a Texas mother encountered this dilemma when she came across her ninth grade son’s “World Geography” textbook. When her son, Coby, sent her a photo from the book’s section on “Patterns of Immigration,” 38-year-old Roni Dean-Burren from Pearland, Texas, immediately took to the Internet to call out the textbook’s clear downplay of slavery in the United States.
After initially posting a screenshot of her son’s message to her, Dean-Burren subsequently posted a video to Facebook, calling further attention to the textbook’s portrayal of African slaves as simply “workers” who came to the Americas. The video, understandably, went viral, racking up nearly 2 million views and inciting outrage among social media users across the country.
Perhaps most importantly, however, was that her voice was also heard by the textbook’s publisher, McGraw-Hill Education. In a statement, McGraw-Hill acknowledged this mother’s concern, stating that after a close review of the book’s content, they agreed that the language in the caption “did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves.” Moreover, the publishers added that changes would be reflected in the digital version “immediately” and will be included in the next print run.
Dean-Burren’s stand against this seemingly innocuous oversight is a significant one. It shows that words really are important. As innocent or unintentional as it may have been, the words chosen by McGraw-Hill paint a very different picture of slavery in the United States. It’s an inaccurate picture, not to mention one that contributes to what Dean-Burren herself calls outright erasure. “This is revisionist history, retelling the story however the winners would like it told,” she said.
The information printed in our history books — the supposed facts — are not always as accurate as we expect them to be. This is information we require the youth of America to know, and that’s a big audience. Textbooks may be different all throughout the country, but this one textbook still reached a significant number of impressionable students in Texas; approximately 150,000 copies are currently in use. Misinformation, as small as it may be, can be instilled in a young person’s mind once we tell them it’s something they need to know, and are sometimes required to memorize.
Slavery is a part of this nation’s history, and as shameful as it was, we cannot erase it from classroom materials or allow it to be painted in a false light. To refer to slaves as simply “workers” is not only wholly false, but it is also diminishing the severity of slavery. As Dean-Burren has put it, “minimizing slavery in any way is a way of saying those black lives, those black bodies, that black pain didn’t matter enough to give it a full description.”
Some Texas Board of Education members have opined that the entire ordeal is the result of people getting offended “too easily” nowadays, but I would disagree. Those who have taken offense to the mistake have every right to feel angry, especially when it comes to the passing on the history of an entire nation.
We shouldn’t pick and choose from only the nicer parts of history to fill our textbooks. To downplay them or even omit them is to essentially say that they didn’t matter, or worse, that they didn’t exist at all. Our nation has a good history, but it also has a bad history, and we need to accept both. Glossing over certain parts of history doesn’t just do a disservice to the people of the past, it also does a disservice to those who learn about it in the present, as well as those who are still affected by it today. Let’s hope that we can learn from our mistakes next time around.