Textbook Indoctrination: the High School History Version of Black Power

“What’s the Holocaust?” asked Hayley’s host brother. This question was not a cultural difference Hayley Nicholas was expecting to encounter while abroad in Madurai, India. Horrified and intrigued, she embarked on an independent study about textbook education in India, and gathered that many students had not learned about the extermination of millions of Jews during World War II. Questioning college students about their perceptions of Jews and their historical education, Nicholas began to realize there must be holes in American history textbooks and learning too. “That was the first time that I critically looked at my… looked at myself and said, ‘Oh my god, what am I missing? What don’t I know?’”

Nicholas returned from abroad inspired to investigate American education, and the gaps therein. Her 2016-17 independent study focuses on “textbooks and how they are constructed, because they are seemingly objective,” she says, and because they are often students’ only source of information on important topics. The subject Nicholas chose? The Black Power movement: it’s “not given its proper… the history in textbooks is not adequate. It’s very narrow, it’s one perspective.”

Nicholas started working on this project with Professor Sarah Jessen last semester. The first step was to research the Black Power movement (BP) itself, trying to understand the nuance of all the different people, events, and organizations that are often forgotten. She learned that the violent, anti-MLK picture most Americans have of the movement is grossly over-simplified. “It’s so much more than that. Black power meant a lot of different things to a lot of people. To reduce it to something that is violent is simply not fair… they were radical because they felt the civil rights legislation… they were not seeing the effects of that legislation on the ground,” Nicholas explains. For example, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (often referenced without the words Self-Defense) carried guns to prove they were not afraid—not to inflict harm. Nicholas points out that “black power doesn’t equate with anti-whiteness.”

BP is also frequently equated with Malcolm X and positioned as an antithesis to Martin Luther King Jr’s goals. In reality, though many distinct ideologies were involved in civil rights, “they all centered around self-determination and racial pride.” Malcolm’s goals were not static, either, and his own opinions changed especially towards the end of his life when he became much less radically ideological. Nicholas is additionally taking Martin, Malcolm, and America with Professor Brian Purnell to help understand the complexities of the history, and has researched revisionist history and erasure theory. Now, she is turning to high school US History textbooks, to see which version of BP students actually learn.

Needless to say, the stats are dismal. Nicholas found that in textbooks 724 to even 974 pages long, there could be as few as one singular page on the BP movement. This falls in line with the reductionist tendencies of many textbooks, where Eurocentric perspectives ensure that events are told in isolated sections, not as part of a narrative; they are “compartmentalized, not integrated.” Emerging from the conflict between political pressures from the far left (“politically correct to the point of being ridiculous”) and the far right (“religious fundamentalists”), textbook versions of history appear quite bland. The people who write the complicated and messy history of the US, ironically, want to avoid controversy, leaving textbooks “boring, lifeless, and dull.”

As a result, students are uninspired. They get a “superficial lens into our political and social world” which is disheartening and simply “sad to realize,” Nicholas laments. Textbooks have a lot of uses, some more positive than others. For example, they are used to further the themes of “patriotism, loyalty to one’s country, and are a way to indoctrinate democratic ideals into students,” Nicholas says. Unfortunately, scripted history can also be a “means for social control, planting and inculcating certain ideals,” or a way for a “dominant narrative to persist,” in the process sidelining marginalized perspectives. Through these texts, a national myth is told: one where the country is the hero, American morals are always progressing, and “inconvenient truths” are seldom included.

Through this project, Nicholas did discover a part of what she didn’t know. “I didn’t know much about [the black power movement],” like countless other American students. At the end of the semester, Nicholas will present to groups of students and teachers from the Portland Public Schools, educating them on both textbook shortfalls and BP. Educators and students alike should “trust textbooks but also be critical of them and realize they’re not neutral,” Nicholas suggests, recalling “going through high school… and never doubting [textbooks’] authority.” Hopefully, Hayley Nicholas will play a part in giving students a fuller version of America’s social and historical landscape, which everyone should have the joy of experiencing, because “it’s so colorful and amazing.”

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