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Watching Our Language: Recommended Reading on American Slavery History

Husbands, wives, and families sold indiscriminately to different purchasers, are violently separated ; probably never to meet again, 1853
Source: New York Public Library

George Orwell’s 1984 taught us that language—and who uses it—truly does matter. In the case of educating Texan youth about American history, language matters a great deal. McGraw-Hill Education’s current geography textbook, approved for Texas high schools, refers to African slaves as “workers” in a chapter on immigration patterns. Other linguistic sleights of hand include using the passive voice to obscure slave owner’s brutal treatment of slaves. It appears we have a Ministry of Truth at work after all, just like the one where Orwell’s ill-fated hero Winston Smith worked, rewriting history. The fact is especially disconcerting, as Texas is the largest consumer of textbooks.

David Levin, president and chief executive of McGraw-Hill Education, has promised a revision of the textbook. The digital version and the next printed edition will reflect the Africans’ forced migration and enslavement. In the meantime, McGraw-Hill Education is sending stickers to cover up the “workers” passage. High school social-studies teachers will set aside the textbook for this subject and teach from other books. The fact remains, however, that the professionals and consultants enlisted for their expertise on the textbook whitewashed history.

Luckily, there is an abundance of rigorous scholarship on the history of American slavery. We asked our authors who have written on this issue for a list of books about the Atlantic Slave Trade that influenced their writing.

Mary Frances BerryMary Frances Berry, coauthor of Power in Words and author of Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich 

· John W.  Blassingame: The Slave Community, Plantation Life in the Antebellum South

· Heather A. Williams: Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery



Thomas Norman DeWolfThomas Norman DeWolf, coauthor of Gather at the Table and author of Inheriting the Trade

· Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

· Douglas A. Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

· Roy L. Brooks: Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations

· Shelly Tochluk: Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk about Race and How to Do It

· Howard Zehr: The Little Book of Restorative Justice



Roxanne Dunbar-OrtizRoxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

· Gerald Horne: The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America

· Gerald Horne: Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow 

· Edward E. Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism 

· Walter Johnson: River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom

· Tiya Miles: Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom


Anita HillAnita Hill, author of Reimagining Equality

· Leon Higginbotham, Jr.: In the Matter of Color, Race & the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period






Sharon Leslie MorganSharon Leslie Morgan, coauthor of Gather at the Table

· Charles Smith, Patricia Johnson and the WGBH Series Research Team: Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery

· Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank: Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery

· Saidiya Hartman: Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

· Wendell Berry: The Hidden Wound

· Joy Degruy Leary: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing


Marcus RedikerMarcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship, The Amistad Rebellion, and Outlaws of the Atlantic

· Ira Berlin: Many Thousands Gone

· C.L.R. James: The Black Jacobins

· Eugene D. Genovese: Roll, Jordan, Roll

· Herbert G. Gutman: The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom

· Edmund S. Morgan: American Slavery, American Freedom