Data Visualization

The featured image is an example of first-rate data visualization. It depicts the totality of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, with a column for the number of people who embarked in a given year, and a column for the number of people who disembarked.  Not only is it clear and easy to read, but the use of a lighter color to denote “embarked” vs. a darker color for “disembarked” means that the difference — those who died during the Middle Passage — looks ghostly.

The graph is part of an interactive timeline from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.  The database is an incredible compendium of information from shipping manifests, logs, and so on for over 27,000 voyages.

Learn more about the trans-Atlantic slave trade in WorldView Software’s World History A, particularly Chapter 20: The Age of New World Exploration, and Internet Project: Triangular Trade.

BulbgraphOnOffGuided essays lead students step-by-step through the essay writing process, from selecting the main idea to writing the conclusion.

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Texas Textbooks and Slavery

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:

Screen capture shows the search results for the term "slavery."
Screen capture shows the search results for the term “slavery.”

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.


Refusing to Rewrite History

Recording history is not just a matter of writing down what happened.  Even if “what happened” is known without dispute (not always the case), historians still have to winnow out what counted: broader themes, trends, or significant events.  What “counts” is always in dispute!  Textbook publishers have always walked a fine line among different interest groups.

For example, the refusal of some Japanese politicians to apologize for (and in some cases, even to acknowledge) for Japan’s actions during World War II — the Nanjing Massacre, the sex slave system, the use of slave labor on infrastructure projects, and so on — have been making the news lately.  And these disputes are reflected in schoolbooks:

[Prime Minister] Abe also expressed anger that McGraw Hill had not amended a passage about comfort women in one of its history books, as Japanese diplomats had pressed the US publishing company to do.

But a desire to gloss over unpleasant aspects of one’s own history can lead to a dangerous ignorance.  That is why some historians in the region are working together to publish textbooks such as “A History to Open the Future,” which gives what the article calls “a single account of the region’s past from medieval times to the present.”

In the United States, textbook publishers are under the same pressures from politicians.  And the desire to brush aside this country’s complex history of slavery and racism as something that only happened long ago is very similar to the Japanese situation.  The publication of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is an ideal opportunity to discuss the historical context surrounding its writing and delayed publication, and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the novel that appeared after Lee wrote “Go Set a Watchman.”  To quote one reader’s reaction:

Many well-read, well-educated Southern whites will tell you that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is their favorite book, and that’s in part because the book’s central myth helps them paper over a painful, irreconcilable chasm in their lives: namely, that Southern racism was never about class or education or character, broadly speaking; that it was and is all-pervasive, that some of the most widely respected, intelligent, kind people they know – grandfathers, teachers, bosses – were and are staunch bigots.

“Go Set a Watchman” destroys the mythology that grew up surrounding the character of Atticus Finch.  But neither “To Kill a Mockingbird” nor “Go Set a Watchman” is just a Southern story; racism is a national disease, and not talking about it doesn’t go very far in curing it.  As another writer points out, the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” this year has been fortuitous because it adds complexity to our knowledge of both the past and present.  It adds historical context to the question of why it was not published when written, and what was published instead.  And it leads naturally into a discussion of the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement.

For historical background on the continuing struggle for civil rights in America, see the Theme: African Americans in American History II, as well as Chapter 9: Great Depression and New Deal and Chapter 13: The Eisenhower Years.  (“To Kill a Mockingbird” is set in the 1930s; “Go Set a Watchman” is set during the 1950s.)

BulbgraphOnOffAdvanced students can get a lot out of Internet Projects on their own; curated links progressively lead to a hands-on project.

Connecting to History through the National Park System

Whether online or on a field trip, consider using the resources of the National Park Service (NPS) to incorporate national historic landmarks into your lesson plans on American history. National historic landmarks are historic places so designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they uniquely capture the heritage of the United States. There are currently 2,500 historic places that are considered nationally significant. In the words of the NPS:

National Historic Landmarks are exceptional places. They form a common bond between all Americans. While there are many historic places across the nation, only a small number have meaning to all Americans–these we call our National Historic Landmarks.

NPS Underground Railroad Map
The Underground Railroad had several different routes to Canada in the northeast, and one each to the south (to the Caribbean) and west (to Mexico).

These landmarks are identified by the NPS through theme studies, which provide a national perspective and historic background for particular subjects and issues in American history or prehistory, and for the physical properties associated with them. For example, if you and your students are reading about the North and South becoming increasingly different (Chapter 13 in WorldView Software’s “Basic American History I: Pre-Columbian Years to Reconstruction”), a way to make that come alive is through the Underground Railroad travel itinerary.  (The site is old but still works when you click “OK”.)


If you are lucky enough to live close to a site, there is always the possibility of seeing it in person – and there are dozens of sites on the register.  But if not, the NPS has also made a great deal of material available online, such as information about the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged (which was also her residence) and Thompson AME Zion Church, all in Auburn, NY, as well as links to the locations themselves (for more on Harriett Tubman, the Home, and its community, visit this page.) Students can research a travel itinerary and follow it to freedom.Thompson AME Zion Church

BulbgraphOnOffUse the Resource filter to see all the program’s materials grouped by type; great for students who need to practice a particular skill.