by David Sheridan
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Scholastic Inc. released a children’s book last month titled A Birthday Cake for George Washington. In words and pictures, it depicted the first president’s slaves as happy and smiling.
The Washington, DC-based nonprofit Teaching for Change shared on Facebook a critical review of the book by librarian Edith Campbell along with the image from the book’s back cover of George Washington and his enslaved chef, Hercules, arm-in-arm, like best buddies.
Then Leslie MacFadyen of the National#Ferguson Response Network created the hashtag #slaverywithasmile, and within 24 hours articles appeared in the Atlanta Black Star, The Root, and Fusion.
Thousands signed a protest petition. Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature, served as the information hub, keeping the book’s critics up to date on developments.
Scholastic launched damage control with statements first by the editor, then the author, and finally the corporate office. But Scholastic must have realized that the protest had gone viral and its reputation was at stake.
It took just four days from the release of A Birthday Cake for George Washington for Scholastic to announce it was stopping the distribution of the book and would accept all returns.
This was not the first effort by a major publisher to sugarcoat slavery. Last fall, Roni Dean-Burren, a public school English teacher for 11 years and now working on a doctorate at the University of Houston, blew the whistle on McGraw-Hill.
In its World Geography textbook, in a section titled “Patterns of Immigration,” McGraw-Hill ran the following caption: “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.”
Under pressure from Dean-Burren, who used #BlackLivesMatter on Facebook, McGraw-Hill announced that “our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves.”
McGraw-Hill made changes in the textbook’s digital version and promises to include them in the book’s next print run.
Says history teacher and NEA Executive Committee Member Kevin Gilbert:
One way we perpetuate institutional racism is by not telling the truth about our past. Just as teachers in Germany must teach about the Holocaust, in America we must teach our students the truth about slavery. To sugarcoat the horrors of slavery or downplay the heroic struggle against it, disrespects our students and dishonors our ancestors.
For educators interested in teaching about the 10 slave-owning Presidents of the United States, see NEA member and fifth-grade teacher Bob Peterson’s President and Slaves: Helping Students Find the Truth, downloadable from the Zinn Education Project .
And Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers a range of materials for helping educators teach students about all aspects slavery on www.tolerance.org.
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