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Teaching the truth about America’s history

Marian Wright Edelman | 10/25/2015, 5:22 p.m.
Were my African ancestors, who were stolen at gunpoint from their homes and families, dragged in chains into the dark ...
Marian Wright Edelman

“The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

“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.”

–Howard Zinn

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.”

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Marian Wright Edelman says that students should not have to be the last line of defense against untruthful and even offensive materials getting into their school backpacks. This inaccurate graphic about slaves is in a World Geography textbook in Texas.

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.