Monday, October 5, 2015

Textbook Company to Update Description of Slaves as ‘Workers’ After Criticism. From Time.

Textbook publishing giant McGraw-Hill will rewrite a section of a book after a Houston mother complained that the text made light of the treatment of the slaves that were forcibly brought to the Americas from Africa.

Outrage over the textbook language spread after Roni Dean-Burren posted an Instagram of a text message from her son, Coby. The freshman had sent along a photo from his World Geography textbook that described African slaves as “workers” and “immigrants.”



  1. The Instagram link with the offending sentence seems to have disappeared since I looked at it earlier today, so I can no longer quote it exactly, but it struck me as a real marvel of mealy-mouthedness: not precisely untrue in any particular, but so completely untrue overall. While I agree that calling the slaves "workers" (which isn't exactly inaccurate, but definitely carries the wrong connotations; put that sentence next to "workers of the world, unite!" and the connotation problems become clearer) is a key part of the problem, I think the issues begin even earlier, with the subject of the sentence, "The Atlantic Slave Trade." While the sentence isn't in the passive voice, making the subject an amorphous historical event/entity has a similar effect: it obscures the fact that actual people kidnapped, sold, bought, chained, whipped, raped, and sometimes killed other people in the process of forcing them to labor (and to produce additional laborers) without choice or compensation. Also missing, of course (and in part as an effect of the first choice) are the sort of verbs I've included above. If McGraw-Hill is looking for writers, I think I could do a better (i.e. more historically accurate but perhaps less politically palatable) job. Then again, so can a 13-year-old (at least a 13-year-old with a good ear for language, which young Mr. Dean-Burren is).

    1. I actually think that calling them "workers" is more respectful. It recognizes their agency as intelligent, hard-working human beings who helped build America as opposed to passive victims. That doesn't mean that slavery and other forms of abuse were not part of the historical context of their worthy contribution or that they were not victims too.