Obscuring the African Contribution: More about School Textbooks

Some weeks ago a group of Tea Party activists in Tennessee demanded from state lawmakers that any references that could tarnish the image of the founding fathers were removed from school textbooks.

Some weeks ago a group of Tea Party activists in Tennessee demanded from state lawmakers that any references that could tarnish the image of the founding fathers were removed from school textbooks. As such, they proposed to eliminate any allusion to say, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison having owned considerable numbers of slaves. These misdemeanours, they argue, are not relevant facts and therefore should be erased. Only "their progress" needs to be look at. In the words of Deon Cole, a writer for The Ed's Show, there shall be "no mention of American slavery, if it makes the founding fathers look bad".

Of course Tennessee Tea Party members are not proposing anything new. Just under two years ago, the Board of Education in the state of Texas approved more than 100 amendments to the school curriculum, including some, truly preposterous. Somehow, someone in Texas went as far as proposing - and getting his or her proposal approved - to replace the term "Atlantic Slave Trade" with the considerably toned-down name "Atlantic Triangular Trade". In the case of Texas, the impact could be felt far and wide, as Trymaine Lee has explained, since "many states currently adopt Texas's books and standards".

These attempts to sweep the past of African Americans in the US under the carpet are not isolated events. We have recently seen how in Arizona the school curriculum has been altered in a way in which the Mexican-American heritage and culture of the state is given as little importance as possible. There is a battle between progressive and conservative forces, and that battle is taking place in the classroom. It seems that Jefferson Davis, the Confederates' President - who, incidentally, is these days being reinstated as a hero by the Texans - was right after all when he said that the principle for which the Confederates contended was "bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form".

Fortunately, the conservative con artists, who are continuously attempting to erase or devalue the history and experiences of today's African Americans and their ancestors, are not likely to have the easy ride that they believe lies ahead. As Professor Paul Lovejoy, Director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for the Study of the African Diaspora at York University in Canada, explains "the forced migration of Africans during 400 years of slavery was central to the development of the modern world". In other words, no matter how hard they might try, these experiences cannot just be hidden away.

While some states of the Union may be regressive in their approach to education, others are not. Over the past few years we have seen a number of African Americans taking high ranking posts in government, culminating with the first African American president in the history of the US, Barack Obama. At local level, initiatives to keep alive the history of the Africans taken as slaves to the US and their descendents are not rare by any means. Take for example the dossier of "documents for the classroom" prepared by the Maryland State Archives and aimed at children between 5 and 12 years of age. Or the relatively recently acquired prominence of the Underground Railroad project, another example of how Americans are committed to raising awareness of the past, while keeping it relevant for the new generations.

Beyond the borders of the US there are even more reasons to be optimistic. Back in December the General Assembly of the UN declared the decade starting in 2013 as the Decade for People of African Descent; a direct result of the very successful decision of naming 2011 as the Year for People of African Descent. Across the three continents that were involved in the transatlantic slave trade an ongoing debate is challenging our current knowledge about the history of the African-descendant populations while new initiatives and schemes continue to appear and to take central stage.

In Canada the Harriet Tubman Institute has developed a set of interactive online teaching packages, primarily meant to be useful to school teachers. In Europe, the French-based EURESCL project has also built up a series of educational tools and workshops for those interested in teaching topics such as the slave trade, slavery, and its abolition. In a similar vein, the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool in the UK has developed an online resource for teachers and educators, which includes dossiers on topics such as historical slavery, race, and modern slavery.

In spite of their limited resources, several countries of Latin America and Africa are doing their best not to be left behind in this renewed effort to recover the history of their African descendant populations. In places like Salvador de Bahia, São Paulo and Havana, museums dedicated to the legacy and culture of the Africans have been established in recent years. In West Africa, slave trade ports such as Cape Coast and El Mina in Ghana, Gorée Island in Senegal, and James Island in the Gambia offer appropriate reminders of what was the largest enforced migration of people in the history of the world.

Meanwhile, however, in Texas and Tennessee some are working to conceal the fact that Washington and Jefferson, among others, were the proud owners of plantations on which enslaved men, women, and children wasted their lives away. Maybe, they will soon want to change other notoriously problematic positions of some of the founding fathers, such as the fact that during their presidencies Jefferson and Madison failed to support or even to show some solidarity towards Haiti, once this country became the second republic of the continent in 1804. Stopping this wave of deceit and concealment will demand the utmost from those who understand the importance of preserving the historical truth, even when it may seem hard to digest.

Professor Lovejoy recently pointed out that "each country in the world has to confront the pedagogical problem that the contributions of the Africans to the world are forgotten, suppressed, denied". Perhaps nowhere in the world is this pedagogical battle more relevant today than in Texas and Tennessee. Thanks to the hard work of activists, academics, and more recently, the UN, the next decade will provide us with a wonderful platform to highlight rather than obscure the heritage of all people of African descent across the world. For those who want to transform historical events into fairy tales, it is perhaps time to accept that when it came to the very polemic issue of Slavery, some of the founding fathers were no saints.

The Texas Board of Education and the enthusiast Tennessee Tea Party activists interested in rewriting history should know that their efforts are likely to fail. Instead of forgetting, suppressing and denying, they should endeavour to highlight the many contributions that Africans and their descendants have made to the history of the United States and the world. That, without doubt, would be a worthier cause, and one that all of us would applaud and support.


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