2015 Archives

‘Workers’ or slaves? Textbook maker backtracks after mother’s online complaint


The following is from the Oct. 5, 2015, edition of The Washington Post. SMU's Edward F. Countryman, a distinguished university professor of history, provided expertise for this story. Roni Dean-Burren is a 1999 graduate of SMU. 

October 6, 2015

By Yanan Wang

Mothers of teenagers are used to getting frustrating text messages, but the one that Roni Dean-Burren received from her 15-year-old son last week wasn’t about alcohol, dating or money for the movies.

It was about history.

Her son, Coby, had sent her a photo of a colorful page in his ninth-grade McGraw-Hill World Geography textbook. In a section titled “Patterns of Immigration,” a speech bubble pointing to a U.S. map read: “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.”

“We was real hard workers wasn’t we,” Coby retorted in a subsequent text.

The image alarmed Dean-Burren, who was an English teacher for 11 years at the Pearland, Tex., public high school that her son attends. Now a doctoral candidate in the University of Houston’s Language Arts program, she has spent much of her life thinking about the power and dangers of nuanced language. The motive behind the textbook’s choice of words seemed clear.

“This is erasure,” Dean-Burren said in an interview with The Washington Post. “This is revisionist history — retelling the story however the winners would like it told.”

In calling slaves “workers” and their move to the United States “immigration,” she noted in viral Facebook posts Wednesday and Thursday, the textbook suggests not only that her African American ancestors arrived on the continent willingly, but also that they were compensated for their labor. . . 

Southern Methodist University history professor Edward Countryman told NPR in an interview this summer that including no more than a cursory nod to race and slavery in textbooks does students a disservice.

“It’s kind of like teaching physics and stopping at Newton without bringing in Einstein,” said Countryman, who reviewed some of the Texas books for this school year.

Read the full story.

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