Recently, a mother found that her child’s geography textbook attempted to erase the experience of slavery — a caption for a map said “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 rest of it wasn’t much better.
Now, the Texas textbook adoption process is incredibly long and involved, and ends with a vote by the elected officials of the State Board of Education. There are all kinds of incentives to tell them what they want to hear, especially considering that the whole process from decisions on standards to approving textbooks takes many years. The last time a social studies textbook was approved was over a decade ago. That’s a long time to wait to try again if a publisher wasn’t approved — which is a very long time to be locked out of one of the most (if not the most) lucrative textbook markets in the country.
But it’s no excuse for trying to blur the boundary between “worker” and “slave.” The screen capture below shows how often and where the word “slave” and its permutations appear in WorldView Software’s World Geography:
It’s definitely in our product.
But the truth is that a textbook will be a poor substitute for primary source information about a subject like slavery. A textbook tends to be quite abstract (mealy-mouthed language and grammar choices made to satisfy ideologues aside) and to know what slavery was like in the United States before and during the Civil War, an excellent resource is the Library of Congress’s archive of the Federal Writer’s Project, in particular the first-person Slave Narratives. These narratives aren’t perfect, and it’s worth reading the introduction to see some of the ways they fall short of the historical researcher’s ideal: bias in interviewer selection, in interviewer training, and so on.
But what could be more powerful than reading how Tempie Cummins‘ mother freed herself and the other slaves on a farm? Keep in mind that the quote below is an interviewer’s attempt to reproduce an accent and dialect in writing:
“The white chillun tries teach me to read and write but I didn’ larn much, ’cause I allus workin’. Mother was workin’ in the house, and she cooked too. She say she used to hide in the chimney corner and listen to what the white folks say. When freedom was ‘clared, marster wouldn’ tell ’em, but mother she hear him tellin’ mistus that the slaves was free but they didn’ know it and he’s not gwineter tell ’em till he makes another crop or two. When mother hear that she say she slip out the chimney corner and crack her heels together four times and shouts, ‘I’s free, I’s free.’ Then she runs to the field, ‘gainst marster’s will and tol’ all the other slaves and they quit work. Then she run away and in the night she slip into a big ravine near the house and have them bring me to her. Marster, he come out with his gun and shot at mother but she run down the ravine and gits away with me.
Learning how much deception played a part in keeping people enslaved should also teach us empathy for those caught in slavery’s grip here and now. The only difference is that the “peculiar institution” is now called “labor trafficking.” But it’s still slavery, and it’s a part of the supply chain for many things in a modern economy, which means we as Americans are still complicit in it.