The XX Factor

War Stories

Several years ago, my husband was browsing in a used bookstore and happened upon a copy of his old public-school Virginia history textbook. He bought it, curious to see how Southern history was presented by state authorities back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reading through it myself–I’m from Virginia, too, and probably had a similar edition–I was first struck by how fluent and elegant the writing was, how ably the book presented history as a seamless and even quite interesting narrative. In this, it was a contrast to the textbooks our own kids have often been given, which tend to be a mishmash of bureaucratese and bold-faced vocabulary terms and choppy, disjointed sections that mostly serve to drive them away from history, screaming.

The quality of the writing was my main thought, at least, until I got to the parts about black Virginians, which were appallingly wrong and self-defensive, blatantly–if fluently!--asserting that many slave masters were kind and blacks were contented. The book “made Virginia a mythical paradise, populated by brave cavaliers, bold Confederates, and contented slaves,” is how my husband, also horrified, puts it. “The cradle of White democracy, set upon now and then by vicious, outside invaders–British and Yankee–but all enduring.”

Not long after that, we learned that none of this was an accident. Though we could not know this as schoolchildren, that old textbook had been ginned up by the state in reaction against the Civil Rights movement. Last year, the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography published a fascinating article which showed that the state, beginning in 1948, created a textbook commission to “impose their own version of history in Virginia public schools.” The article confirms that our “government-mandated textbooks presented slaves as generally happy and the Civil War as resulting from unwarranted federal interference in state affairs” and that this happy-slave myth was being put forward by authorities fighting desperately to resist integration and curb the stirring political changes of the day.

I couldn’t help thinking of our old textbooks yesterday, when the Washington Post had a front-page story revealing that a new fourth-grade Virginia public school history textbook, published and presumably also researched in the 21st century , perpetrates the canard that “thousands” of African-Americans fought on the side of the Confederacy, a statement that would confirm the idea that many Southern blacks were, you know, so very contented. According to the Post piece, this startling boo-boo crept into a widely distributed, taxpayer-funded educational publication not because the state set out to mislead schoolchildren but because the author, Joy Masoff, trusted the Internet to do her research. And, shockingly, the Internet turns out to have big mistakes in it! Not to mention lies perpetrated as fact by folks who still harbor reactionary tendencies and ideological motivations!! It may not have been the state’s conspiracy, this time, but it’s somebody’s.

According to the Post piece, Masoff is not a trained historian, but she has written textbooks and other works including Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments . She told the Post she consulted many sources while doing her research. But when she got to the really pretty important and still somewhat controversial topic of, you know, the American Civil War, she primarily looked at Web sites in addressing the role of black soldiers in the South. Turns out the sites she consulted reflected the fringe views of a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are fond of promoting a myth of substantial black Confederate participation that is dismissed by actual scholars. And it was an actual scholar, historian Carol Sheriff of William and Mary, who read her daughter’s textbook and was dismayed.

Could we please, someday, move forward, Old Dominion? Or even just do our homework? I am white; I was born and raised in Virginia, and my grandmother always urged me to be proud of it. She even gave a cocktail napkin on which was printed a popular saying: “To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.” And just for the record, my grandmother did have a lot to be proud of; her husband, my grandfather, was a politician who was instrumental in bringing integration to the state and assuring that racial progress was made. He sacrificed his own political career in that effort. I am very proud of his contribution; even so, it’s hard at dinner parties when people from the great state of Maryland (and this actually happened) ask me if I am not ashamed to live such a backward place.

It’s true that this time, the misinformation does not seem to have been officially sanctioned, though the mistake did somehow make it past a state content review board. The Post also had a blog piece by education writer Valerie Strauss, noting that state contentmeisters have been eagle-eyed about other factoids and terminologies, but overlooked this significant error. One would like to think that they weren’t quietly endorsing it, and that this time the problem was just an author who forgot that the Internet is in many ways a big trash heap of misstatements. “It’s just one sentence,” she pointed out, as if schoolchildren aren’t affected by sentences delivered by trusted authorities. “I am a fairly respected writer,” she added. Well! That makes it all right, then!

Seriously, all writers make mistakes, but the standards for a textbook entry ought be higher than those for a blog post or Facebook status update.

I guess this is what you could call a teachable moment, but what, exactly, should Virginia teachers teach, when they get to this “one sentence”? Should they skip over it? Hope that children are so bored or distracted, they ignore it? Take a moment to discuss the perils of Internet research and the inaccuracies of Wikipedia? Assure them that for all their efforts to become good writers, a sentence here or there doesn’t matter? Good luck to them, is all I can say, because there’s kind of a long backstory behind this one.

Photograph of a group of black men in Virginia during the Civil War by Wikimedia Commons.