By Marian Wright Edelman
“The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.”
“History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.”
Were my African ancestors, who were stolen at gunpoint from their homes and families, dragged in chains into the dark and crowded cargo hulls of ships for the often-fatal Middle Passage, and brutalized, beaten, and forced into chattel slavery for generations, just like many of the other “immigrants” who came to America in order to “work”? Fifteen-year-old Pearland, Texas student Coby Burren didn’t think so when he saw this map caption in his World Geography textbook in the section on “Patterns of Immigration”:
“The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”
About one hundred and fifty thousand other Texas high school students received the same textbook in their history classes this year, and many of them may have mistaken that caption for truth. Coby knew it was wrong and texted his mother a picture to show her what he was being “taught.”
After his mother Roni Dean-Burren, a University of Houston doctoral student, took a closer look, she shared a video on social media documenting her outrage over the geography book’s mischaracterization of slavery. Both Coby and his mother were willing to stand up and speak out about this distortion of our national past, which haunts our present and continues to threaten our future.
Within hours McGraw-Hill, the book’s publisher, apologized stating they “conducted a close review of the content and agree that our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves.” They announced plans to make online changes immediately and reissue a corrected version of the book. After Ms. Dean-Burren and others raised concerns about the initial promise to fix the next print edition, given that many districts who already have purchased one edition will not buy another for several years, McGraw-Hill announced it will distribute revised textbooks and/or stickers to correct the caption to all schools that own the current edition.
I’m very proud of Coby who has attended the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program where he was exposed to excellent and carefully selected books that teach the truth about American and African American history and culture. He learned what I hope all children of all races learn—that he was not too young to make a difference in his family, school, community, nation, and world. And I’m very grateful Coby’s mother joined her son to demand an accurate recounting of forced slavery in our nation whose legacy haunts us still. Their actions may make a difference for thousands of other Texas students who would have continued using geography textbooks with inaccurate and misleading language for years. Parents everywhere must be vigilant about the books their districts are choosing for their children, read them and, like Ms. Dean-Burren, not be afraid to speak up when changes are necessary. Perhaps we need to have parent book clubs to read and discuss the accuracy of history and geography textbooks their children read.
While it is unclear who was finally responsible for this caption, there have been other concerns about the way Texas education officials influence the content of textbooks and the teaching of history. Because Texas is such a large textbook purchasing market with more than 5.2 million K-12 public school students, publishers may often capitulate to requests for changes that meet some state curriculum demands. Once books have been created that meet Texas standards, the same texts may be distributed in other states.
Should a few education officials in Texas or any state drive decisions about what all of our children learn or sugarcoat the truth? Coby and his mother did the right thing and students should not have to be the last line of defense against untruthful and even offensive materials getting into their school backpacks. George Orwell reminded us that, “he who controls the past controls the future.”
We must go forward in our multiracial, multicultural nation and world and not slide backwards toward the dark legacies of slavery, Native American genocide, and exclusion of women and non-propertied men of all races from our electoral process by our founding fathers. And we must work tirelessly to eradicate their continuing effects on our national life and the growing voices of those who want to turn back the clock of racial and economic progress reflected in mass incarceration, voter suppression, an unjust criminal justice system, separate and unequal schools, and massive poverty and economic inequality that plague us still. Only the truth can make us free.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.