Focused pupil working at her desk in a classroom

Telling All of America’s Story is Important: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Ronni Dean-Burren is the latest addition to my list of parent heroes. Her 15-year old son Cody noticed that in his McGraw Hill Geography textbook, enslaved persons in the United States of African descent were referred to as as “workers”. In Cody’s book, American slavery was discussed as part of a larger conversation about immigration, and the U.S. being a nation of immigrants. Cody took a picture of a page from from his book with his cell phone and sent it to his mother with the message, “we was real hard workers, wasn’t we.” Outraged, Ronni took to social media to make the case that the McGraw Hill text was putting a particularly misleading twist on America history, particularly the history of slavery in America. In response to her vocal criticism, which got considerable attention, McGraw Hill Education released a statement saying that it would change the language to describe the arrival of African slaves in America as “a forced migration.”

I believe America to be the greatest of nations, but neither McGraw Hill nor anyone else has the right to retell her story, painting the institution of slavery in a much more favorable light than it deserves. Consider the implications of such an attempt to re-tell American history, in particular the history of slavery in America. Without an understanding of slavery, children can’t come to understand that the disproportionate underclass position of African Americans in the 21st Century has its beginnings with American slavery. Without a historically accurate account of American slavery, children are unable to appropriately answer lingering and often unspoken questions about the persistent gaps in wealth and education between Whites and Blacks in America.Without an understanding of slavery, children are left to mistakenly conclude that differences in life outcomes between Blacks and Whites in America come wholly as a result of differences between the races in ability and work ethic.

Thank you to Cody and Ronni Dean-Burren for sounding the alarm, and let this be a wake-up call for all Americans. An accurate account of American history is important for all of us; an account which includes both our mistakes and our accomplishments. America’s greatness is not diminished by her mistakes. But trying to erase our errors from American history would be disastrous: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

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