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 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, 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.

4 thoughts on “Is Slavery Too Offensive to Discuss?

  1. Jeez, I remember hearing Julius Lester on WBAI about forty years ago. Back then, at least, the man was a serious leftist. If he uses words like “nigger” in the book, I’m sure it is either quoting contemporary sources or to confront the reader with the language of racism. The whole thing is ridiculous.

    1. I don’t have a copy of the book in question, but the two examples from the book that I viewed on Amazon used the word and a variation of it in the title of two paintings. That’s exactly what one would expect from a book that looks seriously and realistically at the issue of slavery. Lester’s background in writing and his long, award-winning career suggests that he’s probably aware of the power that race-laden words hold and chose to use them carefully.

      I’m trying to locate a copy of the book from a local library so I can speak from a more informed perspective.

  2. There are certain historical events which should be discussed often. Among them the Holocaust. the Indian removal, and Slavery. If they are graphic so be it. They were evel.

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