Daina Ramey Berry is a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of multiple books on slavery, including “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.”
When McGraw-Hill Education published a textbook that described the transatlantic slave trade as a “pattern of immigration” that brought “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations,” a Houston mother, Roni Dean-Burren, took to social media to express her outrage. A controversy ensued. While the company initially responded by calling the passage an “editorial mistake,” many saw it as serious — and dangerous — misinformation. Workers get paid; enslaved people rarely received financial compensation for their labor. Enslaved Africans did not come to the New World as immigrants who had the choice to move.
When Kanye West remarked at TMZ this week that “when you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” people were similarly outraged, taking to social media to excoriate the hip-hop artist.
We could spend more time reprimanding West (as Van Lathan of TMZ did so eloquently). But more productive would be to take this moment to call for a much-needed and long-overdue correction of U.S. history at every level — beginning with K-12 curriculum.
School-aged children have long been miseducated about the history of slavery in our textbooks, and the authors, editors and review committees who accept a version of American history that largely ignores the impact and significance of slavery are at fault. Thankfully, McGraw-Hill corrected its error — the book now states that “Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves” — but we still have a long way to go.
Slavery was an integral part of American history and touched nearly every initial settlement, including all 13 colonies. As the institution matured through the 18th and 19th centuries, industries, universities, cities and states were invested in the business of slavery and in enslaved people.
Yes, it was a long time ago. But so were the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, yet students study every detail of these events. Today, our sixth-graders learn more about ancient Greece and Rome than the history of slavery. Even though core curriculum in public schools requires students to examine political, economic and social events that shaped the United States, slavery is rarely included. The institution of slavery was a large part of all three areas of development and at the center of American history from the time Europeans stepped foot on native soil.
Yet, how many Americans have read a slave narrative or a first-hand account of the experience told by someone who lived through enslavement? Or that the households of 12 of the first 18 American presidents and many of our Founding Fathers had enslaved people in them. School-age children are not taught about Ona Judge, Elizabeth Keckley, Paul Jennings and other enslaved people who labored in the homes of some of the leading men of this country. These enslaved voices have been muted from textbooks; their experiences have been left out of the core curriculum.
At the college level, students enter U.S. history courses with little understanding of slavery. I often begin my classes on slavery by asking students to write on the board what they know about the institution. They are reluctant at first, but after encouragement to think about the first words or phrases that come to mind, they share stereotypes about African people, knowledge of crops such as cotton and rice, and the names of enslaved people such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
This is an important exercise to gauge their knowledge base from K-12 education and enables me to understand the aspects of slavery that warrant context, elaboration or debunking. Many college freshmen enter U.S. history courses having learned a national narrative of independence, democracy and greatness. They are proud of our development as a great nation.
But the truth of American history, one that includes slavery, makes people uncomfortable. It forces us to think about the choices people had and the realities that so many didn’t. It is time to teach the history of American slavery and all its intricacies; it has shaped the country we are today.
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