Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover
I had the honor of participating in a lively discussion on HuffPost Live recently about an outcry over the misrepresentation of slavery in a Texas textbook.

The conversation in this case centered around a single misleading caption in a high school geography text, but the issue is much more widespread. So many wonderful points were made by host Nancy Redd and my fellow panelists Roni Dean-Burren and Mark Anthony Neal that I wanted to share the full text of our discussion in addition to the video. Scroll down for the transcript.

Nancy: Welcome back to HuffPost Live, I’m Nancy Redd. Texas mom Roni Dean-Burren was shocked when her teenage son texted her a page of his 9th grade world geography textbook. In the section titled Patterns of Immigration it 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.

Taken aback that the high school textbook would refer to slaves as workers, Roni took to Facebook to call out the publisher McGraw-Hill on their egregious misrepresentation of history and she got a response. McGraw-Hill quickly addressed the text saying, “We believe we can do better to communicate these facts more clearly. We will update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the US as a forced migration and emphasize that the work was done as slave labor. These changes will be reflected in the digital version of the program immediately and will be included in the program’s next print run.”

Joining us to discuss how a book goes to print with such misinformation and whether or not the McGraw-Hill response is enough, we’re joined by Roni Dean-Burren herself. She’s the Texas mother that brought this to McGraw-Hill’s attention. She’s also joined by Maya Payne Smart, a Texas mother, writer and book reviewer at Mayasmart.com, and Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University.

Roni, thank you so much for joining us. Let’s go back to beginning. What was your initial reaction to the text from your son with the picture of his textbook?

Roni: It was so ridiculous to me. I thought, this is comedy. I was surprised just because I’m an educator here at Texas and I knew that was coming. I knew that this revisionist history was about to happen but I thought it was absolutely ridiculous.

Nancy: You took your concerns to Facebook. Were you surprised by how much traction it immediately got?

Roni: Oh my. Listen. I just thought my cousins and my family would “like” it and walk away and say, “That’s a shame.” And that’s it. So I’m very shocked that people dug their heels in with this particular post.

Nancy: It certainly seems to have struck a nerve and McGraw-Hill did respond. Did they contact you directly?

Roni: No, no. I haven’t spoken to them directly. They just responded with their Facebook post, but not directly to me.

Nancy: What was your response to their response? Do you feel that this is enough?

Roni: Well, you know, initially, I was happy. On a surface level, I think as far as being a large company and answering, yes, I appreciate the answer, but thinking about the logistics of it–thinking about the fact that here in Texas, and I don’t know how it is anywhere else, the textbooks will sit in classrooms for 10 years. Ten years and I’m like, well, saying you’re going to reprint them in 10 years means that students were in pre-K4 right now are still going to read this book. They’ve since come out with a second response that says, “We will provide a sticker for the blurb or if a district requests, they can get the book.” Again, they shouldn’t have to request it. They should just send the team down to every school that has this book, package up the bad ones, bring new good ones.

Nancy: When we’re looking at this, there’s obviously a large number of individuals that completely agree with you, but you need to acknowledge the nuance, what has the dissenting side been? They think you’re taking this a little too seriously or why is something like this going viral?

Roni: It’s history and I don’t want any part of history watered down. I don’t want people to say, “Well, you know, when women didn’t have the right to vote, it wasn’t that bad.” That’s not true. I don’t want people to say, “You know, the native Americans didn’t have it too hard. It was hard but ….” It’s not what happened. At the end of the day, it’s like we have this sort of–we have these different stains on our collective past in this country, and words like this and textbooks like this, they come in and sort of erase that stain and they sort of make it lighter and lighter and lighter and we look up and 50 years and it’s like, “Oh! Was the slave trade that bad?” It was, and all of these other sort of alternative narratives to mainstream history, they were bad and we can’t let one thing slip by. We can’t.

Nancy: You actually bring up an important point. You have a communication with your son, right? Where he’s like, “Yeah. Something’s wrong with it.” You’re obviously working at home to help him understand that there’s something a little bit off about this. I wonder how long and what other things are being missed in this conversation because we don’t think to look at every page of the textbook. And whoever’s supposed to be doing it, might not be doing their job right.

Roni: Right. Look. There’s a list of names of very, I’m sure, brilliant people who reviewed this textbook and I’m just wondering how that piece was missed. It also begs the question, who sits at the table? Who reviews textbooks? Are those people representative of the community that they represent? We have a large Hispanic population here in Texas. The people who reviewed textbooks, do they represent that? Because that’s the only way I think that it could’ve been missed is that you’re dealing with one sort of group’s narrative and one group perspective that they would say, “Oh! That’s fine.”

Nancy: I want to bring Maya Payne Smart in this conversation. Not only are you a Texas mama but also you’re a book reviewer and you’re used to unpacking issues with multiple lenses, right? How did this story resonate with you?

Maya: What she just said really resonated with me–the idea of the last thing, impact of mistakes like this. She mentioned that pre-K students will still have this textbook, same classes 10 years from now and that’s exactly where my daughter is, she’s 4 years old and you look ahead and think ahead as a parent, so what can you do to change these things? What she did, voicing discontent with the content online, building support of people who also have the same issue and getting the publisher’s attention was fantastic. But as a parent and as someone who cares about the historical accuracy of the information all children read, we wonder what else can we do? How can we get a more diverse group of textbook reviewers into this particular publisher and all of the others? Because this was just one caption in one geography book, but we know that there are many more examples of this type of historical misrepresentation.

Nancy: Right. Let’s dissect the passage from the book a little bit. Mark, I’m bringing you into this conversation because I know you’re great at this. All right, the word “immigration” as the caption and then following it up with using the word “workers.” For those who are trying to figure out what’s going on, talk about how these words are harmful because so many of us get it, but so many of us don’t get it because of a variety of reasons.

Mark: As both a parent and also a scholar of African-American Studies, right, you recognize what’s going on here is, first of all, the textbooks are very good business. Obviously, there’s a clientele in the state of Texas that would rather have the story of slavery, of the forced migration of enslaved Africans, soft peddled and watered down as simply a worker’s issue or an immigration issue. It goes for, towards a larger trend in this country to really downplay the reality of trauma against the black bodies in this particular case but also to downplay the role that America has played in terms of American imperialism, which includes of course a transatlantic slave trade. The fact, basically, the foundation of the American economy of course is the use of free, forced labor of African slaves. To have that conversation is to complicate what we think of America historically but also complicates what we think of America now.

So it’s not surprising that we’re in a country in which posts can push back against things like Black Lives Matter because they don’t even have a fundamental understanding of what the Civil Rights Movement was and why that movement was a foregrounding of saying things like Black Lives Matter. It’s not surprising that we have textbooks that companies are not held accountable in terms of what they present as history, because it’s business. They’re not interested in telling the truth. They’re not interested in giving the story right. They’re not interested in doing a good history. What they’re interested in is moving units.

Nancy: I want to bring in some of our communities members, Roni, because it is a larger issue than just a single paragraph and single passage. Truth hurts says, “This isn’t a mistake. We’re talking about a major league, big three educational publisher company with experts who spend hours upon hours ensuring the highest level of grammar and context quality possible.

To think it was a mistake is actually worse, as it would have appeared they’ve conveniently overlooked the importance and accuracy of the Atlantic slave trade history, which happens to be filled with African-Americans. If we, black Americans can’t receive acknowledgement from a top educational publisher company, it’s impossible to think Americans are being properly educated to fully comprehend and embrace the maturation of black Americans. It’s interesting that you happen to be living in the state of Texas because as the NEA [National Education Association] says, controversial changes may be in store for your textbooks courtesy of the Texas state school board. Piggybacking on what Mark was talking about, Texas is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks, right? They have viewpoints that frequently would prefer to remember slaves as workers.”

Roni: Yeah. I mean, I said to someone yesterday, “As Texas goes, so everyone else goes, right?” We have 5 million students in Texas. If textbooks are big business, so, what, we’re making choices about in our textbooks that people are going to see that in North Carolina? In Connecticut? In Minnesota? You have this whole just watering down of our stories, of our collective stories as black people, our collective stories as Americans because it is such big business here. It is huge business.

Nancy: Right. Maya, when we’re looking at the larger implications, it’s a double-edged sword because we’re educating our kids to trust the school system, to believe in what they’re reading, to care and to grow into trust, but then when they’re presented with misinformation, you have the simultaneous problem of saying, “Actually that’s not correct.” Which then puts them to question all of the other material or to ignore, then leave it alone, which puts into question their own history. It’s a lose-lose situation, Maya.

Maya: I think that as a parent, particularly a parent in this climate, you have to perhaps teach your child not to trust wholeheartedly but rather to listen well, to think deeply, to read on their own, to ask questions and challenge their teacher just as we’ve taught them to challenge themselves. I think the message that I’ll be giving to my 4-year old as she grows and join schools that use textbooks, hopefully not as bad as this one, but I’ll teach her that a textbook is just a point of departure for thinking and discussion and that the books the we have on a bookshelf at home should inform her views as should her personal experience and, again, the textbook and the words that come out of your teachers’ mouths are not gospel.

Nancy: Mark, weigh in from your parental perspective.

Mark: I think we actually have to get back to the era when we didn’t expect to see any of our presence in these history books. When we knew we work and then see our stories told in those history books, as parents, as community folks, we knew that we would have to do the work to make sure that we filled in the gaps for what our children were not going to learn in the school system.

Quite honestly, I’d rather have no reference of our history in school books than to have bad reference to the history of us in our school books. We also need to be prepared as parents and as we try to augment what school systems are doing and what textbooks are doing, we need to be prepared for the fact that if we equip our children to be able to challenge their teachers, to challenge their schools on the gaps in their learning, that they’re going to be labeled in certain kinds of ways as trouble-makers, as kids that aren’t following parental authority for instance. Those are the kinds of realities, it’s part of a larger truth that we’re experiencing in terms of black bodies in American educational institutions.

Nancy: Right, and Roni, here is the rub, okay? I’m coming from this perspective with the brown child who needs to know what’s actually happening, but it’s not just about us, and I think that’s the larger context that one of our commentators was getting to as well.

Tretonious: “Stuff like this is the reason why some states/people believe race shouldn’t be an issue. Why they don’t understand historical injustices and how they affect people now.” Right, Roni? It’s not about your kid because your kid obviously, if he’s texting the pic, he gets it. It’s about all the people who don’t even have a clue.

Roni: Right. It’s about the kid who reads over that comment and doesn’t think anything about it. The same child grows up and says, “We’re all the same. We all love each other. Race isn’t an issue.” Because they’ve not been taught to sort of think critically. A lot of children are not media literate enough to know that just because it’s in a book, doesn’t make it true. Like we’re saying, you have to teach them to read critically and my son is a reader and he loves books and so he’s always looking at word choice and things like that. Yeah. I mean, it’s such a slippery slope. It’s a slippery slope.

Nancy: Maya, what do you hope comes from this conversation? Interestingly enough, prior to Roni’s activism we had a conversation ourselves about Texas textbooks, and you wanted to work on implementing change. What do you hope comes from this extended conversation?

Maya: I hope that it raises the awareness of the parents who don’t give this sort of thing a second thought. All of us as parents with brown children and black children, educated parents, think about these issues and prepare our children to some extent to respond appropriately when they come across this.

So I hope that by Roni’s message going viral, it raises the issue for the parents that aren’t thinking about it, so that they read through the homework assignments and the textbooks with the greater level of awareness and concern and do what they can to learn and educate their children to see the world as it is and honor all of the humanity that’s in it.

Nancy: Mark, weigh in because as one of our commenters says, of course we can always do more work. But as one of our commenters says, “Why is taxpayer money going to such a biased textbook. I mean, why is this something that … Is there anything we can do on that stance?”

Mark: I think what Roni did was very important. Roni made the issue very public. The less sexy way to do this is actually for us to do the kind of campaigns to write and complain to school boards and to take it to the next level. If the school board is not reacting in ways that’s accountable to the kind of things that our children need in these schools, then we need to do the work of removing school board members and electing people who will be responsive to our needs and desires.

We all can get caught up in the national politics at the moment, but we realize that so much of our lives is defined in terms of what happens on the local and the statewide level. I’m just wishing this is another example of us paying attention to those kinds of issues, being vigilant in terms of organizing around local politics so that we can address things like the quality of education that our children receive.

Nancy: Right. Maya, would you say it’s not just in Texas, too, like I hope the Minnesota mom is open enough or dad or aunt or grandma or whoever is involved in that child’s life is taking a chance to look at the book, right?

Maya: Absolutely.

Nancy: All right, Roni, here’s the thing. I love what you’ve done. I appreciate your Facebook message, but we’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Coby is the one who recognized that maybe something was a little fishy with this. What’s his take been on this? Where is he in his thought process right now?

Roni: He’s a typical 15 year-old. Some days, he loves me and everybody in our family and some days we don’t see him for 8 hours. I think most of all, he gets it. He told me the other night, we talk this year about him being in 9th grade and this is what it really counts and he has all these college aspirations and I’m like, “You have to do the work. You have to do the work and you can change the world by yourself. You can do it. One voice.” He’s like, “I don’t really believe that.” After all of this, he’s kind of like, “Yeah. I can.” I keep telling him all the time, “You did this. This is not mommy. You saw this. I didn’t go looking, you saw this.” He’s trying to be cool about it.

Nancy: I love it. The powerful one. We appreciate him and you, and the response that you have received is remarkable. Thank you, Roni, for being here. Also, a big thank you to Mark and Maya. More information on this issue and all of our guests in our research lab below this video screen so check that out and stay tuned because the conversation always continues here at HuffPost Live.

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