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Historian Says Textbooks Have Shaped Our Attitudes On Race

Historians in the News
tags: racism, education, textbooks, White Supremacy, Donald Yacovone



Sometimes the answers to our most perplexing questions are right in front of us. How, for instance, could it be that our continuously-evolving society is more divided than ever over skin color and cultural identity when we just had a two-term, black President? Is the media turning white citizens against black citizens or it is caused by the ambitions of opportunistic politicians who promise to get tough on crime and clean-up the community? Maybe it’s the fault of an extreme fringe of fanatics; both black and white? Or could it be that we’re simply incapable of controlling our own prejudices because they’re written into our DNA?

In an effort to find answers about racial conflict in America, I went to Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, which is led by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Ok, I didn’t literally go to Harvard, but let’s suspend disbelief for just a few minutes.) An extensive study, undertaken by one researcher, seems to suggest that a big part of our problem is related to the way in which most of us were educated. Dr. Donald Yacovone has a very interesting take on the subject. First, his credentials:

Donald Yacovone, an Associate at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, earned his Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate University and has taught at Pitzer College, the University of Arizona, and Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He was an editor at the Black Abolitionist Papers project before becoming the senior associate editor at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where he founded and edited The Massachusetts Historical Review and organized many public history programs in the Boston area. Dr. Yacovone is an expert in Victorian manhood, the antislavery movement, and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He has published eight books, most recently, Wendell Phillips, Social Justice, and the Power of the Past (2016) and, with Prof. Gates, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (2013).

Robert: Donald, how did you get started down the path of understanding what is perhaps a key source of racial divisiveness in America today?

Donald: I began this research as part of a broader study of the legacy of the antislavery movement. The Liberator’s Legacy: Memory, Abolitionism, and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1865-1965 aims at assessing the impact of William Lloyd Garrison and his antislavery colleagues, both black and white. I am looking at how the Garrison children and grandchildren; the founders of the NAACP like Mary White Ovington, Moorfield Storey, and W.E.B. Du Bois; John Jay Chapman; and William Monroe Trotter and the Boston African American community depended upon and employed the legacy of the antislavery movement to create the modern civil rights movement. As part of that project, I wanted to assess how abolitionism had been presented in our school textbooks. I imagined a quick look and then a deep plunge back into a series of manuscript collections for The Liberator’s Legacy. Instead, I found myself immersed in Harvard University’s Monroe C. Gutman Library at the Graduate School of Education’s collection of nearly three thousand US history textbooks, dating from about 1800 to the 1980s. Without intending, I had become engaged in a study of how abolitionism, race, slavery, and the Civil War and Reconstruction have been taught in our nation’s school books from 1839 to the 1980s. After reviewing my first fifty or so textbooks, one morning I realized precisely what I was seeing, what instruction, and what priorities were leaping from the pages into the brains of the children compelled to read them: White Supremacy. One text even began with the capitalized title: “The White Man’s History.” Across time and with precious few exceptions African Americans appeared only as a problem, only as “ignorant negroes,” as “slaves,” and as anonymous abstractions that only posed “problems” for the real subjects of this written history: white people of European descent. The assumptions of white priority, white domination, and white importance underlie every chapter and every theme of the thousands of textbooks that blanketed the schools of our country. This is the vast tectonic plate that underlies American culture and must be a central concern of every one of us, regardless of age. And while the worst features of our textbook legacy may have ended, the themes, facts, and attitudes of supremacist ideologies are deeply embedded in what we teach and how we teach it. It is a matter made even more challenging, not less, today because of the replacement of paper texts with the internet.

As historians, we often bemoan our lack of influence: embarrassing book sales figures and the like. Yet, as my review of our nation’s textbooks revealed, historians of the twentieth century exerted an enormous impact on the way modern Americans have come to understand their history. The results are painfully evident. Their work either filtered down into the schoolbooks, as interpreted by educators, professors of education, and school administrators, sometimes through popular authors, or appeared directly as Ph.D.-trained scholars actually wrote the school books I read. The results of that considerable influence we can see today in cities and towns from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Berkeley, California. To appreciate why white supremacy remains such an integral part of current American society, we need to appreciate how much it suffused our teaching from the outset. ...

Read entire article at Huffington Post


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