chapter  13
24 Pages

Brown- ing the American Textbook: History, Psychology, and the Origins of Modern Multiculturalism


In June 1944, a delegation of African-American leaders met with New York City school officials to discuss a central focus of black concern: history textbooks. That delegation reflected a broad spectrum of metropolitan Black opinion: Chaired by the radical city councilman Benjamin J. Davis, it included the publisher of the Amsterdam News-New York’s major Black newspaperas well as the bishop of the African Orthodox Church. In a joint statement, the delegates praised public schools’ recent efforts to promote “intercultural education”—and to reduce “prejudice”—via drama, music, and art. Yet if history texts continued to spread lies about the past, Blacks insisted, all of these other programs would come to naught. One book described slaves as “happy”; another applauded the Ku Klux Klan for keeping “foolish Negroes” out of government. “Such passages . . . could well have come from the mouths of the fascist enemies of our nation,” the Black delegation warned. Even as America fought “Nazi doctrine” overseas, African Americans maintained, the country needed to purge this philosophy from history books at home.1 The following year New Yorkers poured into the streets to celebrate victory over Germany and Japan. Yet in the public schools, African Americans complained, children still used the same racist textbooks. Blacks took special aim at White liberals who supported antiprejudice programs but turned a blind eye to prejudiced texts.2 Indeed, school superintendent John E. Wade-himself a strong advocate of “intercultural education”—was the author of a text that extolled the KKK. The problem afflicted every subject in the curriculum, not just history. Music books featured songs calling African Americans “darkeys”; literature anthologies repeatedly referred to them as “coons” or “Sambos”; and geography texts, including one book by Wade’s successor as city school chief, William E. Jansen, stressed the barbarity of Africa. “One need not go to the Southland to find that Negroes are ill-treated in textbooks,” despaired the New York Age, another Black newspaper. “If gross misconceptions are learned by the children in the schools of New York City . . . what can one expect in other sections of the country where many are still ‘fighting the Civil War?’ ”3 Over the next two decades, “the Southland” would answer with a single phrase, “Whites Only.” Especially after the Supreme Court issued its 1954 challenge to segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Whites below the Mason-Dixon Line stepped up their efforts to eliminate any mention of African Americans from their own textbooks. In the North, meanwhile, Blacks continued to struggle, with little success, to remove the slurs and outright lies that still marred so-called “integrated” texts. Their efforts would not bear fruit until the early 1960s when African Americans developed a new strategy of protest. Borrowing directly from Brown, they argued that racist textbooks, like segregated classrooms, were “psychologically damaging” to Black children. Tempering their older concerns with white bigotry, African Americans used the jargon of social psychology to argue that textbooks injured Black self-concept, Black self-identification, and especially Black

self-esteem. Quoting the prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead, Philadelphia Black activist Horace Woodland declared in 1963, “A people classed as a minority group has a need for a place in history to sustain their belief in their value.” Until textbooks provided a “positive image” of African Americans, Woodland added, Black children would continue to suffer a “sense of inferiority.”4 The new textbook strategy reflected much deeper currents in American political culture, which increasingly defined public problems in terms of their impact upon the individual psyche.5 By 1967, even Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey would warn that racist textbooks were permanently scarring Black minds. “We have no way of knowing how many potential Negro scientists, scholars, doctors, teachers, and businessmen have been swept into the ditch of oblivion by the psychological backlash of the Negro history gap,” cautioned Humphrey, connecting the textbook peril to the alleged “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union.6 Like other Cold War liberals, Humphrey viewed domestic race issues through the prism of international relations: To defeat “communist totalitarian forces” across the ocean, he argued, America needed to insure “basic civil rights” on its own shores.7 As Humphrey’s remarks on textbooks illustrated, meanwhile, liberals also framed racial discrimination as a scourge upon the mental and emotional health of its victims. Whereas racism injured America’s national image on the world stage, in short, it injured African Americans’ self-image at home. This article uses struggles over school textbooks to probe America’s postwar discourse about race, highlighting the shift towards psychological modes of explanation and remedy. The first section examines debates in the North during the 1940s and early 1950s when a new cohort of AfricanAmerican freedom fighters-the so-called “World War II Generation”—faced off against liberal white educators.8 Stressing the irrational nature of prejudice, Whites dismissed textbooks as irrelevant to the formation of anti-Black views; but Blacks themselves placed texts at the center of their analysis, claiming that schoolbooks helped justify and perpetuate White bigotry. The focus of the article then shifts to the South where segregationists’ defense of allwhite texts, and their resistance to so-called “integrated” ones, seemed to confirm the critical role of racist texts in fostering racist attitudes. The final section explains how African Americans refocused the entire textbook debate upon their attitudes, echoing the larger theme of Brown v. Board of Education. Pressuring publishers and school boards across the 1960s, blacks brought forth a new set of texts that aimed to counter their alleged sense of racial inferiority. Their efforts also counter a popular historical narrative about the rise of modern multiculturalism, which is frequently linked to a post-1960s rejection of Brown’s integrationist dream in favor of a divisive “identity politics.”9 But concerns with racial identity and self-esteem dominated the textbook campaign from the time of Brown itself, which phrased its appeal for integration

in explicitly psychological terms.10 The text campaign scored some impressive victories, forcing the removal of racist slurs as well as the insertion of new material about minorities. Yet the gains came at a cost. Demanding a laudatory history that would heal the Black psyche, activists sometimes pressed their own distortions upon the nation’s textbooks. Even more, they provided an unintended crutch for an old but resilient enemy-racism. Increasingly, White conservatives argued that any negative material about their own past would harm their delicate mental health. So did every other racial and ethnic group, each seeking its own immaculate stripe in the multicultural rainbow. The result was a curriculum that celebrated “race” and “diversity” but downplayed racism. Designed to heal the psychological scourge of American prejudice, multiculturalism would help repress its historical roots.