By Isaac Espinosa
A history textbook caption referring to African slaves as “workers” went viral earlier this month after the mother of a high school student in Texas shared it on Facebook.
In response, McGraw-Hill, the book’s publisher, issued a promise to change the wording in future editions of the book and offered to send school districts amended versions of the book upon request. In addition, the company created a symbolic sticker to be placed over the caption, a learning device they believe will allow students to learn about the power and necessity of correct language.
While some perturbed Facebook users insist the company must do more to rectify the issue, I believe McGraw-Hill has amply made up for their mistake. The lessons learned on behalf of the publishers and on behalf of the people demanding the revised book are great steps in creating a more culturally-aware society.
The movement to have the book amended lies in the connotations held by both “workers” and “slaves.”
Slaves — in the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade — were kidnapped African natives brought to Western countries to be sold as permanent laborers, while workers migrated to these countries to forge new lives for themselves. To call one the other, or to say that slaves migrated to America (as stated in the textbook) is an affront to the true nature of what these people endured.
The concern with this word choice was that students may come under the false belief that slaves were not forcibly taken from their homeland, and instead consciously decided to migrate in search of a better life.
Those unsatisfied with McGraw-Hill’s attempts to remedy its mistake argue that students look to these textbooks for truth and knowledge, and reading the caption can be misleading for the young and impressionable. However, it is important to realize that this caption was the only documented replacement of “slave” with “worker” throughout the book. It is also relevant that, in the caption, the Atlantic Slave Trade is expressly recognized as the factor that brought Africans to America, though it is not made clear that these individuals were slaves.
This isolated incident in a textbook with an otherwise typical description of slavery could be dismissed as a fatally-overlooked mistake, but some see it as an attempt to whitewash history and underplay the severity of slavery in its time.
While there are individuals who deliberately try to understate what blacks have been through in the past, McGraw-Hill is not among them. According to the company website, McGraw-Hill has over 10 history textbooks, six of which pertain to American history. All they did was mess up and let one offensive word slip by in an otherwise normal textbook. Ideally, this mistake would have been caught in the editing process; however, the measures McGraw-Hill took to remedy their mistake demonstrated their dedication in relaying an accurate historical narrative.
Regardless, it is imperative to express that any attempts to purposefully alter the perception of history are immoral and wrong. Undermining the roots of slavery is not only an egregious error, but it also calls to attention the need to have a more widespread conversation about black history in the United States. These books have been in circulation since 2011, and it only took one 15-year-old and his mom’s Facebook page to have it rewritten and replaced.
If anything, the fact that media outlets (both social and traditional) were able to facilitate such a large reaction from McGraw-Hill speaks much greater volumes than the improperly-worded caption. The ability to express an opinion and have it heard is one of the most powerful tools our generation holds, and this is a great example of it in action.
This incident — though started by a highly odd and offensive choice of words — proves that a peaceful, well thought-out and level-headed argument against something seemingly incorrect can work wonderfully as a force for change.
Isaac Espinosa is a freshman studying Electrical Engineering. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.