Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 17, 2022

The Experts, by W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963)

Forgive this scanty offering, but I would really like to share this Story of the Week from the Library of America because it shows so clearly the responsibility of educators to be careful with the resources they use.


The Old Plantation c1780 artist unknown (Wikipedia Commons)

At the Story of the Week website, they have captioned this picture with this information:

Virginia: History, Government, Geography, the statewide history textbook for middle schools from 1957 to 1970, reprinted this piece of folk art with the caption, “When the day’s work was over, the plantation Negroes enjoyed themselves.” The accompanying text read, “The amusements of the adult slaves were very much like the amusements of the masters. The white people danced to the music of fiddles in ballrooms lighted by many candles. And the Negroes in the nearby slave quarters danced by the light of pine flares to the twang of the banjoes.”

They go on to reveal an alarming trend in the US:

A few years ago, [2018] the historians Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle wrote in The New York Times about a disconcerting resurgence among prominent Americans of the belief that slavery was a largely benign institution, one of bonhomie between plantation owners and the people they enslaved. This “romanticized interpretation of slavery [is] indebted to a book published 100 years ago,” the authors point out. “In the spring of 1918, the historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips published his seminal study, American Negro Slavery, which framed the institution as a benevolent labour agreement between indulgent masters and happy slaves. No other book, no monument, no movie—save, perhaps, for Gone with the Wind, itself beholden to Phillips’s work—has been more influential in shaping how many Americans have viewed slavery.”

When it first appeared, Phillips’s book was widely praised by white historians and critics, but it was excoriated by African American scholars—chief among them W.E.B. Du Bois, who pulled few punches in a review published by the genteelly academic American Political Science Review…

The use of that history textbook promoting racist ‘research’ dating from 1918 and persisting into the 1970s, means that men and women now in their 60s and 70s have not only been taught this racist history but may also have passed it on to their children and grandchildren.

Read the entire article at the Story of the Week website (where you can also subscribe).


Responses

  1. Thanks for this Lisa … I saw this come through, and recognised the name W.E.B. DuBois but I hadn’t yet read the story.

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    • I was almost too tired to do this but I wasn’t sure how long they leave the stories up for. Do you know?

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  2. Thanks for sharing this. There are many of us in America who are fighting to keep the truth (pain, humiliation, murder and rape) of slaves alive so that we can learn from our mistakes. Just one more thing that is fracturing our country at this time.n Rosemary

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    • TBH Rosemary, I was astonished by this… as an Australian, I had no idea that whitewashing the story of slavery was happening and that a school textbook was the villain in the piece.
      From what we see and read here about America ATM, it looks very worrying. Do you see signs of that fracturing in your everyday life?

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  3. Wow, that was fascinating Lisa, thank you. Weren’t the complaints about the movie Gone With The Wind similar?

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    • I’m ashamed to admit it but I loved Gone with the Wind when I was a teenager. But I watched it on my last longhaul flight because I couldn’t find anything else… and I realised how dreadful it was… the depictions of all the happy and loyal slaves, Mammy simpering because Rhett Butler gave her a petticoat when she’s never been paid for her labour, and worst of all, Scarlett ‘starting out again’ still using the unpaid labour of slaves who choose to stay with her rather than have their liberty. The whole thing is a nostalgic tribute to the ‘civilised’ values of the south and its graceful lifestyle dressed up as a romance.

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  4. About ten years ago, I reread GWTW because, like you, it was a story I’d been raised with, with particular attention drawn to the heroine’s independence, feisty nature, and survivability. It was such an educational experience to reread it, and to study whether it was a matter of the author depicting an historical period characterized by fervent racism and violence, or whether the author’s personal beliefs and worldview were an extension of these inequitable and cruel systems. I’m glad I still have my battered old pocketbook, as a reminder of how we change over time, as readers and people, when we remain curious and willing to acknowledge our mistakes and missteps.

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  5. Hi Lisa. I have finally got around to replying to your blog post. When reading this, I was initially reminded, on a more local front, of the The Fabrication Of Aboriginal History: Volume One: Van Diemen’s Land by Keith Windshuttle that was popular in some circles back during the day. My GR review for you and any of your readers that are interested in Nick Brodie’s very good The Vandemonian War that exposed the limitations of Volume One.

    https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2113267641?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

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    • Oh yes, I remember that one only too well. Who knows how many people were influenced by that disgraceful episode.
      I have the Vandemonian War on my TBR: I heard Brodie at the Non Fiction Festival the year it came out and I bought it then. …
      If I didn’t know that making New Year Resolutions was pointless, I’d resolved to make a better effort with the NF that’s on my shelves…

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