Race and the Re-Education of America: Transforming U.S. History Classes (cont.)


Rapper Kanye West recently caused an uproar in saying that 400 years of slavery may have been a “choice,” and he highlighted decades of revisionist Civil War history. This includes the “happy slave” narrative in films like “Gone with the Wind.” West’s comments need to be contextualized in a wider matrix: the idea that slavery’s brutality was not enough to start a war. The idea is embedded in parts of the American educational system and actively promulgated by state officials, writes Tara Isabella Burton in Vox.

Even today’s textbooks and teachers underrepresent or downplay the effects of slavery. McGraw Hill apologized in 2015 after a social studies textbook used in Texas referred to slaves as “workers,” implying that the millions of Atlantic Slave Trade victims were traveling by choice. In 2010, the Texas State Board of Education adopted new, more conservative learning standards. Changes included how to teach the cause of the Civil War, with slavery appearing only as an “after issue,” replaced by an examination of the “cultural, economic, social, and constitutional” issues dividing Americans. A 2018 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project found that 8 percent of high school seniors said slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Only 44 percent knew that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution. Fewer than half knew that a constitutional amendment formally ended slavery.

Part of the problem in teaching American history is that it should not be viewed as a chronicle of shame, but a story of humanity, economic and geographic expansion, achievements, dispossession, brutality and reform, writes author David Blight in Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. Through the Civil War and emancipation, African-Americans had much to do with remaking the United States. ““The history of slavery is not merely a depressing subject about exploiters and victims, racists and heroic survivors. It is all of those things, but is also a great place to begin to understand our human condition, our nation’s foundations and legacies all round us with which we live every day. Slavery helped make America—to build it— and through cataclysms, its destruction made possible remaking America,” Blight writes for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report.

Recommendations include improving instruction about American slavery and fully integrating it into U.S. History, using Teaching Tolerance’s Framework for Teaching American Slavery for high school students, utilizing original historical documents, and expanding curriculum and textbook repertoire to reflect diverse experiences. Textbooks should convey the realities of slavery and make intentional connections – good and bad –to the present, by showing the lasting contributions of African cultures and ideas, as well as the enduring impact of racial oppression on contemporary American life, the author writes.