The Shameful Error McGraw-Hill Made Can’t Be Fixed Simply by Covering It Up with Little StickersHistorians/History
tags: slavery, education
Pearl Duncan has two upcoming books, one about the DNA roots of African American ancestors and another about colonial ships, Wall Street and New York and New Yorkers.
When we highlight the contributions of the enslaved in the Americas, we do not only look at significant small contributions enslaved African Americans made in America. Instead, when we talk about the enslaved, we are saying America would not be America without the enslaved African Americans.
America would not have grown as an economic force in colonial and modern times.
At each step of the nation’s development, the county’s history would have had a different outcome, if at first, the colony then the new nation had not had access to the slavery economy.
So when I look at the leaders, the merchants, the citizens of the colony and the new nation, I do not see “bad” people who practiced chattel slavery, I see people who used a slavery economy to build a nation, and used a slavery economy to sustain a nation.
From the Dutch Peter Stuyvesant to the English Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and others, the leaders and their citizens used slavery to build the nation. Free labor that created wealth freed them to build the nation politically, economically and socially. They could concentrate on politics because someone else was doing the work. They could accumulate wealth because others were laboring for free. They could create social systems because they excluded African Americans from those systems and those communities.
This nation was built on the back of slavery. That is why it is important to highlight the total contributions of the enslaved at every step in the colony’s and the nation’s history. Each moment of major development was accomplished because of the wealth generated by the enslaved. Books such as Eric William’s Capitalism and Slavery document the major contribution at the start of the Revolutionary War. And now, books such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History and Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism document the major contributions not only in colonial times but beyond, not only in America’s economy but in the world’s economy. Baptist describes how slaves were a major liquid asset, and how owners mortgaged slaves for major bank loans. It is not easy to distort the history of slavery in America once the overall contributions have been documented.
But some try. They distort. They lie. They deny. And when they do, we must respond. We also need to read the other writers who have already responded. Eric Williams said the germ of the American Revolution was found in the development of the New England merchants’ wealth accumulated from the slave trade in North American and Caribbean colonies. On my family tree, I discovered that Leonard Vassal, a New England plantation owner, who owned seven sugar plantations in which some of my African American ancestors labored in Jamaica, used the wealth from the plantations to build a mansion in Quincy in 1734. The mansion was purchased in 1787 by John Adams from Leonard Vassal’s descendants. It became John Adams’s family home in Quincy, Massachusetts.
I started writing about all of my ancestors’ contributions once I realized how damaging it is to distort, deny or hide history’s significant details.
When I did my family’s genealogy and found ancestors and their descendants in Scotland and England, I contacted the descendants who are ancestral cousins and found that they had no idea about the colonial American ancestors I described. They knew that there were ancestors who had migrated to America; they knew that there were ancestors who had invested and gained wealth in Colonial America, but they had a very different, very distorted view of these ancestors.
The only books and historical materials they had seen about the specific people on our family tree called these people “West India and Virginia merchants.” After I contacted them, I had to explain and share documents showing that these ancestors were nobles and merchants who were major slaveowners in America. They sent me the documents and books, which described the same ancestors as “West India and Virginia merchants.” There was no mention of slavery in the description of these ancestors’ businesses in America. There was no mention or description of these ancestors’ colonial businesses, even though some owned tobacco plantations in Virginia and others owned sugar plantations in Jamaica.
After we exchanged documents,, I mentioned the one or two members in this family of ancestors who were abolitionists who aided the African American rebel Maroon ancestors who were their relatives. Awfully, some owned their own black relatives. The few abolitionists on my family tree were men who fought to end slavery and document the contributions of the enslaved people. They left records of their biracial children. So my foray into genealogy showed me that we have to document history in a honest and balanced way and we have to check the few who try to distort history, and we have to check them hard.
One of my noble ancestors was a burgess like the men in the Virginia Company who established the House of Burgesses on July 30, 1619 to encourage Europeans to settle in America. The burgesses met on Jamestown Island in Virginia, the same year in the same place that twenty Africans were sold to start the slave trade in the northern colonies. Slavery was always at the root of the major accomplishments in America.
When I research I continue to follow the folk sayings of my Maroon ancestors who fought against slavery, and one of their folk sayings is applicable to how diligent we have to be when we look at the history of evils like slavery. That saying is, If you don’t walk around, you do not see that the pussycat is cockeyed. It means, move around, search thoroughly, be aware. And once we see, we have to say something.
The recent news of the young man, a high school student in Pearland Texas, who alerted his mother about a school textbook that distorted slavery reminds us of how vigilant we have to be to catch the distortions. He reported that his books described Africans as “immigrants” and “workers” in colonial America, grossly distorting the history of enslaved people in America. This news reminded all of us of how much work there is to be done to prevent such distortions from slipping through.
The student texted his mother, saying his high school World Geography textbook has a caption that says, "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."
His mother, Roni Dean-Burren, jumped into action. She posted a video online. Thousands of viewers responded. Hundreds of media outlets reported on what she did but few media reported on what could be done to correct the problem now and in the future.
The publisher, McGraw-Hill, was so overwhelmed after the story blazed online, it said it would post a correction to the digital version of the textbook. It then said it would do the following: cover the erroneous passage with stickers, provide new, accurate materials for teachers, and eventually replace the textbooks. Some school districts have already said they will not use this textbook, and will replace it with other books.
But there is much more to be done. Book Publishers have to be more responsive to writers who research and document the contributions of America’s enslaved people in a way that shows a direct connection to the building of America.
Other historians, writers, artists and filmmakers are beginning to do that. Artist Kara Walker’s sculpture in sugar, A Subtlety, pays homage to sugar workers and their contribution to the West. David Olusoga’s documentary, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners is a walking tour of the wealth slavery built in Britain. We can view history using multiple narratives. We can tell stories of the victims and their suffering, and we can tell stories about their contributions to the building of nations. We should be able to walk down the streets of numerous nations and point to structures and institutions, and say, “They built that.”
I am now writing about the roots of the stock exchange and how wealthy slaveowning merchants gained from slavery, then turned their profits into Wall Street fortunes. Without profits from the slave economy, American colonists may not have succeeded in their rebellion against the British empire. The nation was created, not only economically, but politically, in large part, because of a slave economy and the free labor of enslaved people.
Even in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia, burgesses like my ancestor would not have succeeded in steering the economy and defining their own freedoms, if they were not planning to be well supported by the slavery economy they had just created. My own European ancestors lied and distorted the roots of their political and economic success. Let us not allow others to tell the same lies, distort or deny. Descendants of my Scottish ancestors in Scotland are beginning to correct the distortions in their history. Other nations need to do the same.
African American enslaved people were not “immigrants” and “workers” as MCGraw-Hill’s textbook says – they were slaves who built a nation.
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