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Textbooks and White Supremacy

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How have our history textbooks helped create and maintain white supremacy?

One morning as I examined a library cart bursting with about 50 elementary, grammar, and high school history textbooks, a bright red spine reached out to me through time and space. Why is this familiar? I wondered. As I opened the book, it all came rushing back. Somehow I had never forgotten the book’s image of Eli Whitney, included not for his notorious cotton gin but instead for “inventing” the concept of interchangeable parts — thus laying the groundwork for industrialization. “Exploring the New World,”by O. Stuart Hamer, Dwight W. Follett, Benjamin F. Ahlschwede, and Herbert H. Gross — published and reprinted between 1953 and 1965 — had been assigned in my fifth-grade social studies class in Saratoga, Calif.

Just like a legion of the early textbooks I had been reading, “Exploring the New World”never mentioned the antislavery movement. Slaves, on the other hand, proved necessary to pick cotton — “Who else would do the work?” the authors asked. This textbook, and nearly all the texts I reviewed, was not published by a Southern segregationist press, and certainly not by the Klan or other far-right publishers — although such presses emerged with a vengeance in the 1920s and still operate, especially online. No, the thousands of textbooks that have stained the minds of generations of students, from the elementary grades to college, were produced almost entirely by Northern publishing houses, situated mostly in New York, Boston, and Chicago, and by Northern-trained scholars and education specialists.

At the same time, however, my fifth-grade textbook also stated that the people of the North did not believe that men and women “should be bought and sold.” “Exploring the New World,”published during the Cold War, followed the same pattern set at the close of the 19th century, seeking sectional reconciliation regarding issues related to slavery and the Civil War. Its authors also wished to avoid cultural strife (and the reality of slavery and racism) and promoted national unity in the early 1960s by asserting that during the Civil War everyone (white) was brave, everyone (white) fought for principle, and Gen. Robert E. Lee represented all that was noble, gallant, and heroic in American society. “His name is now loved and respected in both North and South,” they explained. “We know that he was not only a gallant Southern hero but a great American.” What we have been teaching our children for nearly all American history suddenly became real, and personal.

The depth, breadth, and durability of American white supremacy and racial prejudice is certainly no revelation to modern historians and social analysts, Black and white. To understand why it has proved so dominant, so irresistibly appealing, even essential, we must survey its development and range. No better place exists to trace that development and cultural importance than in the long history of the nation’s textbooks. Embodying the values to be treasured by rising generations of Americans, textbook authors passed on ideas of white American identity from generation to generation. Writers crafted whiteness as a national inheritance, a way to preserve the social construction of American life and, ironically, its democratic institutions and values. Given the extent of the nation’s belief in white supremacy, one would be astonished if it had not been a guiding principle of our textbooks.

Of course belief in white supremacy and Black inferiority existed long before the creation of the American republic and, along with a sincere — but not contradictory — belief in democratic republicanism, always has occupied the center of the American soul. James Baldwin, the celebrated African American writer and critic, recalled in 1965 that “I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and that neither had I. I was a savage about whom the least said the better, who had been saved by Europe and who had been brought to America.” After school, he returned home and thought, “Of course, that this was an act of God. You belonged where white people put you.”

And it always had been so.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History is hopeless outdated, but at the time, the reason it was so important is that it pushed back on generations of this white supremacist history that kids had grown up with and increasingly didn’t believe.

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