Black People to Texas: Erasure Is Real, and Slaves Were Not "Workers"

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The news this week brought a slew of telling stories from an oblivious, alleged post-racial America that clearly isn't: A (white) guy in Atlanta posting a photo of the (black) son of a co-worker, to a flood of racist jokes and taunts and, eventually, an even bigger flood of support for the furious mom; a bizarre cover for Cosmopolitan Magazine featuring the trashy (white) Kardashians titled, "America's First Family," likewise generating much outrage; and a bungled photo shoot of Meryl Streep and her (white) co-stars for a new movie about suffragettes that earned the title of  "White Liberal Celebrity Fail of the Week."

Similarly painful but somewhat heartening was the tale of Texas mom, former English teacher, current doctoral candidate and longtime black person Roni Dean-Burren, who as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement decided that words about black lives also matter. Following the mantra that if you see something, say something, she called out publishing giant McGraw-Hill after her 15-year-old son Cody noticed in his ninth-grade World Geography textbook by McGraw an odd section under "Patterns of Immigration." A speech bubble pointing to a U.S. map 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.” Cody sent a picture of the page to his mom, wryly texting underneath it, "We was real hard workers wasn’t we.”

Dean-Burren promptly made a video she posted on Facebook, carefully noting the word "Immigrants" and concluding, "So (slavery) is now considered "immigration." She also points out the gazillion consultants - "See all these PhD's next to their names?" - and Texas Advisory Board members who signed off on this presumably educational material, and mentions an adjacent section describing the indignities faced by European immigrants - aka white people - who came as "indentured servants to work for little or no pay." Then she called up McGraw-Hill and gave them a piece of her mind.

The company responded by saying that after "close review of the content (we) agree that our language did not adequately convey" that in reality African human beings were chained, beaten, stolen, bought, sold, raped and killed as property: "To communicate these facts more clearly, we will update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize their work was done as slave labor...We value the insight the public brings to discussions of our content." Dean-Burren sees it as a partial victory: “On a surface level, ‘yay'...thumbs up for listening." Then again, the changes will only be made now in digital versions - ie at no cost - and not for years in print. Thus, a historical distortion pretty gross even by Texas' sketchy standards - a narrative that's "not really the story of slavery" - will remain in place, and the facts of black lives and bodies and pain are lost. “This is erasure,” says Dean-Burren. “This is revisionist history - retelling the story however the winners would like it told.”

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