Slavery and migration: same thing?

The initial wording in Burren's textbook seemed to imply that slaves, such as these from the Congo, were economic migrants. (Reuters)

The initial wording in Burren's textbook seemed to imply that slaves, such as these from the Congo, were economic migrants. (Reuters)

It started with a text from a Houston ninth-grader to his mother. On reading a caption in his geography textbook describing slaves as “workers”, Coby Burren (15) sent a photo and a message to his mother. “We was real hard workers wasn’t we?” he wrote.

Roni Dean-Burren, Coby’s mother, posted about the book online.
Her comments went viral; the publisher swiftly decided to rewrite the section.

The offending passage was in a section titled “Patterns of Immigration” in McGraw-Hill Education’s World Geography book. A United States map was labelled: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern US to work on agricultural plantations.”

Dean-Burren – and thousands on social media – objected to the words, which seem to imply slaves were economic migrants: “So, it is now considered immigration,” she wrote.

Dean-Burren pointed to a passage on the facing page describing Europeans who came to the US to work as indentured servants, for little or no pay.

“They say that about English and European people; there is no mention of African immigrants working as slaves or being slaves. It just says that we were workers,” she said.

McGraw-Hill Education said it would change the wording: “We ... agree that our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labour 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 US as a forced migration and emphasise that their work was done as slave labour. These changes will be reflected in the digital version of the programme immediately and will be in the programme’s next print run.”

Dean-Burren wrote on Facebook: “This is change, people! This is why your voices matter! You did this!”

It is not the only controversy in Texas textbooks, which have recently become an ideological battleground. In 2010, Christian conservatives on the Texas board of education approved a curriculum featuring topics such as religion’s role in founding the US, the undermining of US sovereignty by the United Nations and why McCarthyism wasn’t so bad.

It was suggested the slave trade be termed “Atlantic triangular trade”.

Last year, the board approved a textbook listing Moses as a key influence on the US’s founding fathers.

Climate change and creationism have also been controversial. In 2014, McGraw-Hill made changes after a proposed textbook said there was no scientific consensus on global warming’s cause, citing a right-wing think- tank and climate-change denier.

In another example, the curriculum standards call for “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” to be taught as causes of the US civil war – placing slavery third, though it was the central reason. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

Client Media Releases