In 2010, the Texas Board of Education approved a revised social studies curriculum that, wrote The New York Times that year, would “put a conservative stamp on history” once going into effect in 2015. In advance of their debut in Texas classrooms last week, it was widely reported that the new textbooks, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Pearson, “whitewashed” slavery by downplaying the brutality of the facts and treating it as a “side issue.”
Jezebel has obtained digital copies of some of the new “conservative” Texas textbooks (the books are available to education professionals but not the general public), and while they certainly aren’t the abomination some activists and educators feared, their contents demonstrate a troubling creep away from teaching actual history—and the unpleasant truth of America’s legacy of racism—and toward a sanitized fable of historical white morality.
Initially, some news outlets reported the textbooks omitted Jim Crow laws and the KKK altogether, but, as Texas Monthly pointed out in its September issue, that wasn’t exactly the case.
Happily, though, publishers mostly ignored the board, according to Dan Quinn, of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization dedicated to countering what it sees as far-right activism. “I think publishers did a good job of making sure of the centrality of slavery,” he says. Quinn, who perhaps more than anyone has sounded the alarm about the board’s bias, was distressed to read national reports asserting incorrectly that Texas children wouldn’t be reading about the KKK and Jim Crow. “The textbooks cover all of that,” he says. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s eighth-grade U.S. history textbook, for instance, includes a section on KKK terror and the postwar black codes that created “working conditions similar to those under slavery.”
The magazine reassured its readers that the “travesty” of “partisan fiction” had been avoided and that the textbooks, though flawed, were far from an affront to the study of history. But, after examining copies of the 7th grade, 8th grade, and high school-level books obtained by Jezebel, it was clear that this curriculum is riddled with omissions, making frequent use of convenient, deceptive juxtapositions of slaveholder violence and the slave resilience. Sure, Texas’s new textbooks aren’t an outright travesty. But that doesn’t mean they’re anywhere close to good.
Slavery is mentioned only briefly in HMH’s 7th grade textbook. It’s not until 8th grade that the subject is expanded upon in a tone that suggests a general unwillingness to clearly state just how horrific of an institution it was. Passages that reference violence often transition to characterizations of slaves as a hopeful, god-fearing bunch whose faith and sense of community when not working or being punished almost negated the nightmarish realities of their daily lives. And, though the violence of slaveholders is mentioned—often with quotes by former slaves—it’s generally followed by a reminder that their lives weren’t all bad. Slavery, the book suggests, was only truly miserable some of the time. For adults, this combination of half-truths and omissions makes for an unpleasant read. For children, it’s something worse: a disservice.
Just look at one of the first mentions of slavery in HMH’s Texas United States History. (All emphases in quotes our own, and the illustrations that textbook quotes appear on are ours, not found in the actual textbooks.)
Chapter 3: The English Colonies, 1605-1774 | p. 77
The colonies had many small farms and some large plantations. Farms did well because the South enjoyed a warm climate and a long growing season. Many farms grew cash crops that were sold for profit. Tobacco, rice, and indigo—a plant used to make blue dye—were the most important cash crops.
The southern colonies’ cash crops required a great deal of difficult work to grow and harvest. This meant a large workforce was needed. By the 1700s enslaved Africans, rather than indentured servants, had become the main source of labor. African slaves brought with them knowledge that helped turn the wild environment into profitable farms. Many had previous experience raising cattle and knew the method for clearing brush using fire.
Slavery was a viciously brutal condition for many inhabitants of the southern colonies.
Africans were brought to America to be slaves, sure, but their specific skill set helped change the landscape and and improve the economy!
Apart from being too little, too late, that final sentence acknowledging slavery’s brutality evinces the gotta-hear-both-sides structural dodge also found in the previous section, in which six paragraphs on the “horrible experience” of the Middle Passage and slavery are followed by four on its cultural upsides.
For example, the textbook explains some of the slave ship’s brutal specifics: “The slaves were chained together and crammed into spaces about the size of coffins. The height between the decks was sometimes only 18 inches.” And the introduction of American slavery is relatively mild, but clear:
The treatment of enslaved Africans varied. Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.
However, the section closes with a rhetorical attempt to find some happy ending:
Slave Culture in the Americas
Slaves in the Americas came from many different parts of Africa. They spoke different languages and had different cultural backgrounds. But enslaved Africans also shared many customs and viewpoints. They built upon what they had in common to create a new African American culture.
Families were a vital part of slave culture. Families provided a refuge—a place not fully under the slaveholders’ control. However, slave families faced many challenges. Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner. In Latin America, there were many more enslaved males than females. This made it difficult for slaves there to form stable families.
Religion was a second refuge for slaves. It gave enslaved Africans a form of expression that was partially free from their slaveholders’ control. Slave religion was primarily Christian, but it included traditional elements from African religions as well. Religion gave slaves a sense of self worth and a hope for salvation in this life and the next. Spirituals were a common form of religious expression among slaves. Slaves also used songs and folktales to tell their stories of sorrow, hope, agony, and joy.
Many slaves expressed themselves through art and dance. Dances were important social events in slave communities. Like most elements of slave culture, art and dance were heavily influenced by African traditions.
“Slavery was bad, but it had some good aspects, too.” It’s a trend that continues throughout the book, such as this section about slave codes:
Chapter 13: The South, 1790-1860 | pps. 426-427
Harry McMillan recalled some of the punishments he had witnessed.
“ The punishments were whipping, putting you in the stocks [wooden frames to lock people in] and making you wear irons and a chain at work. Then they had a collar to put round your neck with two horns, like cows’ horns, so that you could not lie down . . . Sometimes they dug a hole like a well with a door on top. This they called a dungeon keeping you in it two or three weeks or a month, or sometimes till you died in there. ”
To further control slaves’ actions, many states passed strict laws called slave codes. Some laws prohibited slaves from traveling far from their homes. Literacy laws in most southern states prohibited the education of slaves. Alabama, Virginia, and Georgia had laws that allowed the fining and whipping of anyone caught teaching enslaved people to read and write.
...which is followed directly by:
Many enslaved Africans found comfort in their community and culture. They made time for social activity, even after exhausting workdays, in order to relieve the hardship of their lives. Although they were forced to immigrate to the United States, their culture is one of the foundations of the current national identity, especially in the worlds of music and religion.
This “it wasn’t all bad!” structure isn’t the only problem with the book’s discussion of slavery and racism in the United States. The roughest truths are often softened around the edges, sometimes by the addition of just one word. On page 425 of Texas United States History, we learn that, “Generally, slaveholders viewed slaves as property, not as people.” Generally.
That infuriating method of downplaying is most evident in the description of the Ku Klux Klan in HMH’s high school-level textbook The Americans: United States History Since 1877, in which the KKK is portrayed as having a broad range of political goals, among which violently racist political intimidation is only a lesser, incidental factor:
Chapter 4: The Union in Peril, 1850-1877 | p. 188
Most white Southerners swallowed whatever resentment they felt over African-American suffrage and participation in government. Some whites expressed their feelings by refusing to register to vote. Others were frustrated by their loss of political power and by the South’s economic stagnation. These were the people who formed vigilante groups and used violence to intimidate African Americans.
The most notorious and widespread of the Southern vigilante groups was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The Klan’s goals were to destroy the Republican Party, to throw out the Reconstruction governments, to aid the planter class, and to prevent African Americans from exercising their political rights. To achieve these goals, the Klan and other groups killed perhaps 20,000 men, women, and children. In addition to violence, some white Southerners refused to hire or do business with African Americans who voted Republican.
It’s not noted within that section that the “20,000 men, women, and children” killed by the Klan were of a fairly particular group.
When discussing the Klan’s resurgence in the 20th century, the book is even less focused on violence:
Chapter 12: Politics of the Roaring Twenties, 1919-1929 | p. 415
The Klan also believed in keeping blacks “in their place,” destroying saloons, opposing unions, and driving Roman Catholics, Jews, and foreign-born people out of the country. KKK members were paid to recruit new members into their world of secret rituals and racial violence.
“Destroying saloons, opposing unions.” If that rundown of the KKK feels strangely unfinished to you, read this slightly more descriptive account from 1935, written by W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America.
Lawlessness and violence filled the land, and terror stalked abroad by day, and it bured and murdered by night. The Southern states had actually relapsed into barbarism...Armed guerrilla warfare killed thousands of Negroes; political riots were staged; their causes or occasions were always obscure, their results always certain: ten to one hundred times as many Negroes were killed as whites.
When discussing other reconstruction-era racial violence in the South, the textbook is similarly stingy with the details:
Chapter 8: Life at the Turn of the 20th Century, 1877-1917 | p. 288
African Americans and others who did not follow the racial etiquette could face severe punishment or death. All too often, blacks who were accused of violating the etiquette were lynched. Between 1882 and 1892, more than 1,400 African-American men and women were shot, burned, or hanged without trial in the South. Lynching peaked in the 1880s and 1890s but continued well into the 20th century.
In paragraphs like this, the textbook’s polite elisions and factual tip-toes become an overt disservice to the children who will read them, and a particular low even from a state whose 2012 Republican platform included a ban on critical thinking. To describe the conditions under which black Americans were lynched by whites due to their failure to “follow the racial etiquette” is nearly insane; additionally, “racial etiquette” is an extreme euphemism for a code of conduct imposed by a white society so overtly violent that it advertised lynchings in newspapers, showed up to see them in crowds totaling 15,000, and sent postcards afterwards to celebrate the fact. Lynchings weren’t mere punishments. They were, writes Robert Gibson, a “cruel combination of racism and sadism...used by whites to terrorize Blacks and maintain white supremacy.”
It is, however, absolutely worth noting that HMH’s social studies textbooks contain an abundance of well-written and essential information about the abolitionist movement. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, the writings of Frederick Douglass, descriptions of the “daring” work done by Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Ida B. Wells: all of those topics are covered, as are the efforts of civil rights leaders of the 20th century. But there’s an uneasy feeling that the significance of their achievements will be diminished to schoolchildren when not prefaced with an accurate portrayal of what they were fighting. It’s hard to fully appreciate the results of progress without first being given blisteringly truthful depictions of its origins.
In Texas United States History, sections begin with hypothetical exercises called “If You Were There...” which ask students to imagine themselves as various people throughout the country’s history. At some point in chapter 3, you’re asked to step in the shoes of an early settler who’s considering a move back to England. In chapter 8, you’re a Maryland voter choosing between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
But just one of 63 sections in a book about America from the 15th century to 1877 begins by asking Texas children to imagine life from the point of view of a slave.
It’s a halfhearted attempt at empathy, and one that is emblematic of the book’s failure to make readers view slavery in the monstrous, despicable light it deserves.
While discussing this subject with my colleagues, Kara Brown said, “The thing about slavery is that I feel like I know a lot about it, but every single additional thing I learn makes me realize it was even worse than I thought.” These textbooks are acutely aware of that sentiment. In the most generous reading, the people who created this textbook do believe young Texans will eventually learn the whole truth. But as educators, they just don’t want to be the ones who told them.
Note: The post was updated to add clarification on the source of the textbooks.
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Images via Getty, illustrations by Bobby Finger, textbook image via screenshot