Intro Unit: The Politics of Education - Enlightenment or Propaganda?

This from a McGraw Hill history textbook printed in 2012. The passage, in a section on Immigration, makes it seem as if Africans were not brought to the U.S. in chains as slaves, but were immigrants who voluntarily came to America to "work on agricultural plantations."

Unit Overview

"It is the lion hunter who writes the lion's history."
- African proverb
The African proverb above prophetically captures the political nature of education, especially as it has played out for African people. The history of Africa – of the world, was rewritten by the Europeans who conquered the Western Hemisphere in the 15th-19th centuries during what scholars refer to as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It was rewritten to justify European enslavement of Africans and indigenous Native North, Central and South Americans, and to legitimize European domination of the Western Hemisphere and the subsequent colonization of the African continent.  

To defend these actions, Europeans feigned ignorance of what they knew about Africa and declared that African people were innately inferior. Some went so far as to declare that Africans were sub-human. Leading European historians, scientists, philosophers, biologists, archaeologists, politicians, and even the Church, began to sing in unison that Africans were primitive, and that Africa had no record of achievement. Thus, they declared, it was the European’s duty to “bring the light” to the “backward” and “uncivilized” non-white world. This racist ideology also extended to all of the indigenous peoples and lands Europeans conquered in “the New World.” From this pivotal moment in history racism was born, and with it a relentless campaign to re-educate the world in this new philosophy of white supremacy. It was the lion hunters (re)writing the history of the lion.

During American slavery, white legislators banned enslaved Africans from learning to read. Slave traders sold members of the same tribes to different locations to prevent them from communicating and from retaining their religion and culture, which they believed fueled resistance and revolt. They were told that their religion was false and given a new one – Christianity – the religion of their conquerors. Yet, in most instances, enslaved Africans were not allowed to read the Bible, and were forbidden from congregating and worshiping on their own. Instead, they could only receive Bible instruction from white ministers, who exhorted passages that sanctioned slavery like Ephesians 6:5-8.

As for their culture, they were told that it was primitive and given a new one – European culture – the culture of their conquerors. The goal was to indoctrinate Africans in the belief of their own inferiority so that they would eventually accept their enslavement – or the rule of white people – as the natural order. Over the course of three centuries, Africans were re-educated from everything they knew into a hostile worldview, culture, and religion that placed them at the lowest level of humanity. 

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end here. Despite the relentlessness of their slave masters, enslaved (and free) Africans, as well as countless white Americans and Europeans, exhaustively rejected this new philosophy of racism as propaganda, having no basis in fact. They opposed slavery on all grounds on which it was supported; presenting scores of empirical evidence that backed their position. Brilliant intellectuals and spokespersons like Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Henry Highland Garnett, Martin Delany, Edward Wilmot Blyden, David Walker, Hubert Harrison, and Sojourner Truth among many, many others, stood as living contradictions to the doctrine of African inferiority. Historians such as J.A. Rogers, John G. Jackson, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, and wrote books and articles to counter the negative propaganda of Black inferiority with illuminating books of the richness of African history. And librarians such Vivian Harsh and Charlamae Hill Rollins worked diligently to ensure that these books were on public library shelves and readily accessible to curious Black scholars.

White Abolitionists in both Europe and America, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner, made careers of ending slavery and the new racist philosophy it spawned. Others such as the legendary John Brown sought to overthrow slavery with arms and scarificed his and his son's lives to achieve that goal at a failed raid at Harper's Ferry. They were accompanied by European historians such as Volney and Massey, whose works affirmed that black Africans were the orchestrators of ancient Egypt, and that Africa was the progenitor of civilization. Volney and Massey cited physical proof as well as the testimony of the ancient Greeks, who openly credited Egypt for much of their knowledge. Together, these individuals, and scores more, helped to counter the racist propaganda that sought to make slavery a permanent institution in the Americas, and racism a dominant world philosophy. They declared slavery morally indefensible and a mockery to the ideals of American freedom and equality and the principles of the Enlightenment. Their work became the ideological foundation of the Civil War that ultimately destroyed the institution of slavery. 

After slavery, the racist propaganda that had been developed to justify slavery continued to define social relations and shape American culture. It had been ingrained in the minds of society for hundreds of years. Over time, many people – white and black – came to accept this racist indoctrination. As a result, the public education system that was created after the Civil War to educate the newly freed Blacks, or “Freedmen” as they were called, utilized textbooks and outdated materials that upheld the racist philosophy that had undergirded slavery. Although Africans were now free, the stamp of inferiority followed them into freedom. They were equal citizens in the eyes of the Constitution, yet they were still "niggers" in the eyes of the larger white world, in the South as well as in the North.

Segregation permeated public education and reinforced a racial hierarchy in which separate and degrading facilities reserved for Blacks marked their supposed inferior status. Images in popular culture portrayed Black people as mentally, physically and morally inferior. Through comically exaggerated lips, eyes, noses, teeth and other physical features, racist caricatures were created to humiliate and represent Blacks as coons, pickanninies, sambos or bumbling idiots. Through the new education system and popular representations, Americans were re-indoctrinated in white supremacy in the decades after slavery. Yet throughout the twentieth century, waves of Black consciousness emerged to combat this propaganda, including the Harlem Renaissance, the Garvey Movement, the early Black Studies Movement of the 1930s and 1940s, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Black Consciousness Movement and Independent Schools Movement in the 1970s through the 1990s. This ongoing struggle sought to restore the image of Africa in the minds of Blacks, and redeem Africa’s place in world history. The Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Black History curriculum is a part of this legacy.

This Intro Unit probes education as propaganda and the ongoing struggle to combat it. These classes demonstrate Black peoples’ perpetual battle against racist propaganda and mis-education, and the relentless war still being waged to uphold the philosophy of white supremacy. Yet many conservatives believe that only a flattering history of America and Europe should be taught to prevent generations of white students from experiencing "white guilt" over the deeds of their ancestors, and to exempt America and Europe from responsibility for past and present genocide, racism, discrimination and exploitation of the non-white world. Fortunately we are now in the Information Age. Through our Standing on the Shoulders of Giants curriculum we present the true facts of history because we certainly cannot afford to repeat it.​​

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
"Ten Little Niggers" was a popular Nursery Rhyme in which each of the "10 little niggers" in the story is killed in a horrible way until all of them were dead. Racism was taught at the earliest age, not only in America, but all over the world. White children were made to feel numb to Black suffering and to even take celebration in their gruesome deaths!
People To Know
John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist who believed in and advocated armed insurrection as the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. He was dissatisfied with the pacifism of the organized abolitionist movement: "These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!"
People To Know
Thaddeus Stevens (April 4, 1792 – August 11, 1868) was a member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania during the 1860s. Stevens argued that slavery should not survive the Civil war; he was frustrated by the slowness of President Abraham Lincoln to support his position.  As the war progressed towards a northern victory, Stevens came to believe that not only should slavery be abolished, but that African-Americans should be given a stake in the South's future through the confiscation of land from planters to be distributed to the freedmen.