Sanitizing History

Recently when a young ninth grade student in Pearland, Texas noticed that his World Geography textbook referred to Blacks, forcibly taken out of Africa, as immigrant workers voluntarily coming to this country to work in the fields in the south, he alerted his mother. She immediately exposed that distortion of the truth on Facebook. It created uproar of protest. The textbook publisher, McGraw Hill, then went public and announced that they would correct the error on their digital format and also begin to replace the textbooks if requested by the various school districts.

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The most surprising aspect of this fiasco was the publisher’s suggestion that the error was not deliberate and they actually displayed a degree of contrition, almost apologetic. There is no way that the ultra-conservative Texas State Board of Education, the seventeen member body that reviews and adopts instructional material for the public schools throughout the state, was not aware of that particular distortion of the truth. It was just another attempt to sanitize the country’s history of all its blemishes.

The dominant culture has no qualms distorting its past, in order to protect its image for their young. The truth is that cultures exist for the future, but they are built on the past. With that being the case, those responsible for perpetuating the history of the American culture are strapped with a very serious problem. In today’s contemporary world, if their children knew the truth about their ancestors, chances are good they would dislike them. The way to solve that problem is to make the bad guy look good, and they can do that since they write the history books. Both the Americans and the British have been extremely competent in practicing that deception.

Immediately following the end of slavery there was a deluge of plantation novels, written for the purpose of justifying slavery, or an attempt to sanitize an ugly period in the country’s history. Popular author Thomas Nelson Page fictionalized the content slave, who bemoaned freedom and longed for the days when “Dem wuz good ole times, marster de bes’ Sam ever see.” What Page wanted to remember and celebrate in his dialect stories was, “that relation of warm friendship and tender sympathy” between the races. (Leon F. Litwack, Trouble In Mind, Vintage Books Edition, New York 1998, pg. 187) The author Joel Chandler Harris created the Uncle Remus character, which willfully entertained generations of white children with his stories of the simple but happy slave. Harris perpetuated myths about the character and contentment of Blacks, and their enduring love of the white folks they served. (Ibid, pg. 187) There were many more writers who attempted to change the country’s perception of slavery. In another work, Martha S. Gielow published her collection, Mammy’s Reminiscences, in 1898 that glamorized life in the slave quarters. Finally, in the most blatant attempt to interpret the history in a distorted way, Thomas Dixon wrote two novels, The Clansman (which was adapted to the screen play Birth of a Nation) and The Leopard’s Spots.

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To his dismay and disappointment, Paul Robeson got caught up in that trap while living in England. He was offered the role of the African Chief Bosambo in the film, Sanders of the River. Robeson was excited about his role because he believed the movie would represent an important milestone, as the first comprehensive film on the African culture. However, what it turned out to be was a glorification of British colonialism and imperialism. The message in the movie suggested that the British occupation of Africa was necessary in order to curb the savage nature of the Africans on the continent. Sanders of the River made money, perhaps because it glorified the white man’s Empire, but proved to be an embarrassment to Robeson. (Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson: A Biography, New Press, New York, 1989, pg. 180.

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This practice of deception has been a constant throughout the history of this country. The method may be much more sophisticated today than in the past, but it still exists. Proof is in the description of Africans as workers and not slaves in the McGraw- Hill Geography book. The problem in the state of Texas is that the approved textbook material comes from a contingent of conservatives, determined to protect the positive image of this country that has prevailed over the decades. However, we are not without recourse. What we must do is write our own interpretation of history, and make it available to our young outside the boundaries of the classroom. This calls for parents to take a more active interest in their children’s education. It calls for the ministers to have culturally related classes in their churches on Saturdays. It calls for more of our writers to produce works that tell the truth about our past. It calls for those million Black men who took the time out of their schedules to congregate on the mall in Washington, D.C. to also congregate at home with their child and share with them their history. It calls for all of us to read, study, and become more knowledgeable about our past.

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1 Comment

Filed under Black Culture, Black History, Black Literature, Race

One response to “Sanitizing History

  1. jeriwil

    The vain attempt at sanitizing history cued up recallings from voices of sages plying intellectual insight-fullness inside historical research. Historians have delved inside the school and business relationship. This quite visible relationship between the two institutions creates the desired image which will be supplanted through the generations.Robert Penn Waring’s reminder: When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten. Another: rolled from the pages of Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, and the documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion Time/Line adds even more credibility in its exploration of themes such as the impact of science, race and and social policy. Its chronology lays out the evolving process of race and how the changes in their interpretations and definitions have an impact on institutions that permeate the lives of all persons in any given society.

    Schooling is one of these institutions, and businesses are the institutions that receive the end result of what has taken place within the schools. It is the business of business to expect the desired effect which will reflect the ideals of the dominant class numerous research tomes reveal. Inside these walls the learning curve still glorifies a fabricated history of a few, while silencing the heroic, historic fetes of many as in “He who counts heads, silences facts and voices.” The power brokers, their shadow Joes and their protectors, namely , the courts, the lawyers, the school boards and other gate-keepers come in conflict with their polar opposites–those proverbial groups lacking “aspirations to rise out of a culture of poverty” because of being caught in “a situation” wherein they keep wanting “free stuff”. Earlier and even more recent studies determined that a “usable past” had to be created; it would be one that extolled the virtue and courage of their predecessors. It had to be a past shaped by a collective memory which would define values. And most important, to stabilize governing, it would necessitate deference to the holders of the power structure. Being able to define and refine collective memory will help to see the difference between what is or was historically and what is or was not historically.

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