A mother who called out a caption in her son’s World Geography textbook has started a social media firestorm — and has convinced the book publisher to change its language regarding the slave trade.
Roni Dean-Burren (pictured) received a text message from her son, Coby Burren, last week, that included a photo of a page in the Texas ninth grader’s McGraw-Hill textbook. The image showed a United States map, in a section of the book titled “Patterns of Immigration,” and a caption that read: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”
Along with the image, Coby sent a sarcastic one-liner: “we was real hard workers wasn’t we,” accompanied with a frown face emoticon.
In this text message, Cody Burren alerted his mom to this caption in his World Geography textbook. (Photo: Roni Dean-Burren/Facebook)
Dean-Burren shared the text message on Facebook Wednesday, noting “The Atlantic slave trade brought millions of workers…notice the nuanced language there. Workers implies wages…yes?” The photo has more than 1,300 likes and more than 3,700 shares on Facebook.
On Thursday, Dean-Burren posted a video showing the textbook pages, highlighting a section that describes English and European people who came to the U.S. to work as indentured servants, explaining that they worked “for little or no pay.” Dean-Burren continues, “They say that about English and European people, but there is no mention of Africans working as slaves or being slaves. It just says we were workers.”
Along with the video, which has been shared more than 45,000 times and received more than 9,000 likes, Dean-Burren wrote: “Erasure is real y’all!!! Teacher your children the truth!!!”
Dean-Burren did not respond to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment.
More than 3,500 comments poured in, largely in support of Dean-Burren’s message. Wrote one user: “In our day of political correctness, some people feel the need to sanitize our past. Wake up, folks! We are human — our past, present and future all have and will have flaws. We need to [learn] from the past, correct the mistakes, and KEEP them in the books so we can learn from them!” Another chimed in, “Outrageous! We must know and teach our collective histories truthfully.”
Dean-Burren’s message — and its overwhelming support — made it to the book’s publisher, McGraw-Hill, who posted a statement to its Facebook page on Friday, stating it was going to revise the book’s language. “This week, we became aware of a concern regarding a caption reference to slavery on a map in one of our world geography programs,” the statement said. “This program addresses slavery in the world in several lessons and meets the learning objectives of the course. However, we conducted a close review of the content and agree that our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves. We believe we can do better. To communicate these facts more clearly, we will update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize that their work was done as slave labor. These changes will be reflected in the digital version of the program immediately and will be included in the program’s next print run. McGraw-Hill Education is committed to developing the highest quality educational materials and upholding the academic integrity of our products. We value the insight the public brings to discussions of our content.”
Dean-Burren, who is a doctoral candidate in the University of Houston’s Language Arts Program and taught high school English for 11 years at the school where her son is a student, told the Washington Post that this change is only a start. “On a surface level, ‘yay.’ I understand that McGraw-Hill is a textbook giant, so thumbs up for listening,” she said. Still, she noted that the next print run of the textbook could be five to 10 years out, since her son’s book is a 2016 edition. “I know they can do better. They can send out a supplement. They can recall those books. Regardless of whether you’re left-leaning or right-leaning, you know that’s not really the story of slavery.”
Plenty of Facebook users agreed with Dean-Burren. McGraw-Hill’s statement — which received more than 2,400 likes and 3,300 shares — garnered more than 2,000 comments. “They apologized like it was an accident. They made a financial decision to allow these vague interpretations and lies to be put into new textbooks. For some reason no one assumed anyone would be concerned about this. As long as the books get sold right?” wrote one user. “Someone WROTE it. An editor VETTED it. The publisher WENT with it. You need to recall the freaking textbook,” said another.
Still, Dean-Burren acknowledged the textbook victory on Facebook, giving the credit to her son Coby. “This is change people!!! This is why your voices matter!!! You did this!!!!” she wrote on Friday. “And to my sweet boy, my only son….my man man Coby Burren…look at your power son!!!”