Do history textbooks do justice to people of color?

Haritha Rajasekar

Staff Writer

     As our nation continues to battle the institutionalized discrimination against people of color, many are forced to look back at the fundamental teachings that have shaped us all–our history textbooks. Whether it be topics such as the subjugation of indigenous populations or the emergence of racism in our society, history teaches us a lot about the roots of our present-day challenges. But what if it’s the history itself that is at fault? What if the books that teach us about our nation’s beginnings forget to voice the stories of those who struggled the most?

     When speaking about history textbooks and classes, no one knows the material better than the teachers who explain the content to their students. Dr. Hernandez, an AP European History and U.S History teacher, spoke on whether he thought people of color were fairly represented in textbooks: “The current textbook for U.S History touches upon the stories of people of color but they’re sort of marginalized because not a lot of spaces are dedicated to them. For instance, in discussing westward expansion, there’s only one section of a larger chapter dealing with indigenous populations. It’s really about the voices who have won.”

     Tessa Castellana (11), a student exposed to both the AP European History curriculum in addition to the AP U.S History curriculum, feels that there is a lack of focus on the treatment of indigenous populations.

     “I felt that the author[s] didn’t completely show the indigenous people as victims. . . the whole destruction of their populations was very overlooked [and] the book barely even talked about it.”          In addition, Castellana recognized that, “There are whole chapters dedicated to white, ‘American’ culture but literally a few subsections dedicated to Native American and Black culture.” In a nation that belonged to indigenous populations, students only have a few paragraphs that even recognize their practices and art forms in history textbooks. 

     When discussing the history of African Americans, an important historical concept is slavery and, in turn, racism. Whether it be the forced migration of millions of Africans to the Americas, or the struggles of segregation and racial profiling, history textbooks have the responsibility to address these issues when referring to the nations’ pasts.

     Saachi Baldwa (11), who is currently in the AP U.S History class, cited a quote from her textbook; she says, “The textbook spent a few pages talking about Jim Crow and the KKK and all these atrocities that Black people had to go through, but the last sentence of the chapter, the last impression they leave the in readers with is, ‘the commitment to white supremacy, in short, was a burden for poor whites as well as for Blacks.’ I interpreted this as people who participated in white supremacy suffered similarly to the people who were the victims of it? That really bothers me. It just really minimizes the damage done to African American communities.”

     When asked about whether the AP European History curriculum demonstrated the emergence of racism fairly, Castellana says, “I feel like it explained it well but it could’ve been better explained content wise. I wish they showed it from different perspectives rather than the European point of view; it should’ve been more inclusive of people from different backgrounds.”

     She’s not the only one who feels this way. Dr. Hernandez adds that, “It’s that sort of textbook writing that continues to reinforce the notion that oppressed and marginalized communities –because of sexuality, gender, race, ability–are not included because the textbooks continue to be written from the perspective of people in positions of power. These textbooks continue to perpetuate a particular perspective and they are not intended to lend voice to the voiceless, they don’t focus on the silences.”

     Now, the topic of representation in history textbooks has been discussed for quite some time. Even more, the question on whether history books are at all accurate has also been debated upon by multiple professionals. In the popular book, Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong, author James W. Loewen writes that, “So long as our textbooks hide from us the roles that people of color have played in exploration, from at least 6000 BC to the twentieth century, they encourage us to look to Europe and its extensions as the seat of all knowledge and intelligence. So long as they say ‘discover,’ they imply that whites are the only people who really matter. So long as they simply celebrate Columbus, rather than teach both sides of his exploit, they encourage us to identify with white Western exploitation rather than study it.”

     When presenting this quote to Amanda Tran (11), who studied AP European history, she said, “Looking back, in my opinion, that’s actually so true. [The text] focused so much on the Renaissance and all these artists but not as much about the African American and indigenous cultures that the Europeans ripped away. Like isn’t that a part of European history too?”

     So how do we move forward? What changes do we implement in our textbooks to better emphasize the role of people of color in our textbooks?

     Djeinabou Bah (11), who is currently in the U.S History class, states, “I would tell history how it was by including all the advancements that people of color and LGBTQ+ members have made to benefit today’s society. [I would] alter the history books to the point where there would no longer be a need for specific months or days to celebrate [people of color’s] accomplishments, like Black History Month.”

     “In terms of the U.S History, stop making the textbook from the perspective of white males. Stop reinforcing this norm. Stop creating a normativity on that perspective. Maybe diversify the perspective by getting people from those marginalized communities included in the production of these textbooks,” says Dr. Hernandez. 

     Today, as our country protests for an end to racism and discrimination, we must look back to the fundamentals that introduce us to these concepts in the first place. We must learn to not think of slavery and subjugation as old practices, but rather as traumas and injustices that have shaped our  nation. We must move beyond the staple names of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and learn about more Black authors, artists, and revolutionaries. We must learn to not celebrate and glorify the days of European colonization but rather honor the presence and the culture of the indigenous tribes who truly discovered this land. After all, how can we have a future if we don’t learn from our past? As a nation, we must be taught the stories of those who suffered the most.

Pages from the AP U.S History textbook that talks about the fourteenth amendment and work of Abraham Lincoln. 

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