Textbooks Matter in a “More Complete Society”

2010 November 3
by Leah Nahmias

On Tuesday we welcomed a new group of teachers to our Teaching American History professional development seminars. For the first time, we started the series with a day addressing the question “What Is Social History”, rather than focusing on a particular content topic. In one of our introductory activities we looked at how social history has changed the narrative of U.S. history. As an example, we looked at the historiography of slavery as reflected in textbooks.

We set up the activity with Herb Gutman’s framing of the historiography of slavery: first, historians looked at what slavery did for the slaves; then they looked at what slavery did to the slaves, and finally, social historians asked, “What did slaves do for themselves?”  The differences between the following textbook excerpts are illuminating:

As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its ‘peculiar institution.’ The majority of slaves were adequately fed, well-cared for, and apparently happy. Competent observers reported that they performed less labor than the hired man of the Northern states. Their physical wants were better supplied than those of thousands of Northern laborers, English operatives, and Irish peasants . . . Although brought to America by force, the incurably optimistic Negro soon became attached to the country, and devoted to his ‘white folks.’ Slave insurrections were planned—usually by the free Negroes—but invariably betrayed by some faithful black; and trained obedience kept most slaves faithful throughout the Civil War. . . If we overlook the original sin of the slave trade, there was much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization.

[Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), 537-539.]

At best, the slave family was unstable and uncertain.  Slaves could not own property because they could not make agreements or contracts.  Likewise, they could not legally marry.  A slave man and woman were “married” by their owner’s consent.  At any time, however, the owner could sell the man or the woman, and that would be the end of that marriage and that family.  If children were born, the owner could sell the children, thereby breaking up the family.  This was one of the most cruel features of slavery…

Today, a hundred years and more after the end of slavery, we can only imagine what it meant to be a slave.  Constantly watched, and subject to complete control by the master, a slave was never allowed to forget that he was a slave.  As the songs of the slaves indicate, there was a deep undercurrent of sadness and despair.  “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Let My People Go” are examples.  “Everybody Talkin’ about Heaven Ain’t Goin’ There” implies a rebuke to their masters.

[John W. Caughey, John Hope Franklin, and Ernest R. May, Land of the Free: A History of the United States (New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1966), 305-306.]

On plantations and small farms, slave women and men employed a variety of methods to slow the pace of work, subvert the owners’ authority, and create a sense of identity and community distinct from whites. A small number of slaves chose open rebellion over everyday resistance. Although none of these uprisings succeeded in toppling the institution of slavery, or even doing significant damage to it, each sent a shock wave of fear through the white South. Along with a small but growing movement opposed to slavery in the North, southern blacks’ embrace of religion, resistance, and rebellion made clear that the institution of slavery could be maintained only by physical force and a strong political will.

[American Social History Project, Who Built America: Working People and the Nation’s History, Third Edition, Volume 1: To 1877 (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008), 304.]

As we read and discussed each textbook passage, teachers shared their thoughts about why social history matters, especially for their students. We all agreed that social history is where our public school students can see themselves. But we hardly could have phrased the importance of social history better than Milwaukee high school student and activist John Lawrence did in 1968, when speaking to journalists about why students were protesting their textbooks.  Lawrence noted that he hadn’t grown up with textbooks that showed the experiences and contributions of African Americans or other marginalized groups, and consequently had spent his youth wishing he were white.  Now, he said, he didn’t want the same fate for his younger brother:

I want him to learn about how his race of people and the other races of people…have functioned, how they will function, or how they must function in order to form a more complete society.

In 1968, Milwaukee schools had adopted “The Negro in American Life: A Guide to Supplement the Study of U.S. History.”  As the title suggests, the supplement covered black history absent in the main narrative of the district’s standard textbook. Lawrence noted that for “right now, it will have to do, but in five years, I want my little brother to have something better, and I don’t want it to be called a supplement.”  Lawrence went on to say that it’s not enough that students hear about Crispus Attucks dying in the Boston Massacre:

So what?  [It’s fine that he died] for a great and noble cause, but what did he contribute?  …What did he help the nation as a whole gain? He died, one man fighting for freedom…but we want to know about the rest of the men. I’m not saying black, I’m not specifying black.  I’m saying the rest of the men, period.

Unfortunately, I can’t embed the video of Lawrence speaking to the press, but I highly recommend watching it at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Library’s website (Lawrence begins speaking at 1:56 mark).

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