News came out this week that a reading about slavery by a fifth-grade teacher has produced a lawsuit by a female student’s family. According to media reports and the suit, the excerpt from Julius Lester’s book, From Slaveship to Freedom Road, contained “racial epithets and racist characterizations” that “affected the conditions of learning duties and the advantages of her further education, and seriously affected her mental and emotional well-being, past, present and future.”
I haven’t read his book, but a look at Julius Lester’s website, a perusal of website information about him, and a look at the book’s reviews on Amazon.com suggests that something is wrong with this story. If the parents’ objections were about the graphic nature of the book (geared toward pre-teens and teens), then some criticism might be warranted, although a lawsuit seems a bit much. As a parent, I would certainly discuss the contents of the book with my children to ensure that they understand the historical context.
The parents’ objections, however, are with the racial overtones of the book. I did a search of the obvious racial code words (the word “nigger” and its variations) and found two paintings labeled in that manner. I can’t see all of the paintings from the preview on Amazon.com, but they don’t appear to depict anything offensive.
Not knowing the entire story, perhaps the teacher is at fault. Maybe s/he misspoke, misconstrued, or misled the student in some way regarding the book. I suspect, however, that at the bottom of this story is something similar to the textbook controversy in Virginia that Kevin Levin has discussed extensively on his Civil War Memory blog. Just as Veronica Davis believes that efforts to correct her textbook to reflect reality is an attack on African Americans’ contributions to U.S. history, I suspect that the parents in this Detroit lawsuit are offended that an honest historical depiction of the African American past is being presented to their daughter. Why? I haven’t a clue.
I hope I’m wrong, and I’ll be happy to retract my thoughts if so. But, I’m not holding my breath.