Monday, January 18, 2010

A Little Child in Alabama

Martin Luther King Day -- and I was thinking about a suitable post. I took a look at my last year's post with the conclusion of King's stirring "I Have a Dream" speech and one bit particularly caught my attention.

"I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

Some of those vicious racists were probably my kin -- my maternal grandparents both grew up in rural Alabama and had family there. And when the Sixties came, with the push for integration, I was confounded to hear the views held by my beloved grandparents.

They weren't vicious racists, but they were racists nonetheless. We talked and argued and I was baffled by their intractability -- as baffled as they were by my opinions.

But I understand some of this a bit better now -- fifty years after the fact.

This little green textbook -- published in Richmond, Virginia in 1899 -- holds the key.

It belonged to my grandmother's brother -- and I can't resist including the picture he drew (his teacher, perhaps?)

But the thing is, as I began looking through this text book, I saw just what my grandparents learned in school -- and what we learn in school is often hard to undo. (Click on the pictures to enlarge and read the words yourself.)

The text -- a history of the United States -- is 423 pages long. Almost half is devoted to the Civil War (battle by battle) and the whole thing is very sympathetic to the South -- from a denunciation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's ill-informed view of slavery to this sweet picture below of the mistress of a plantation reading to the slaves on Sunday.

"The outcry against slavery had made the Southern people study the subject, and they had reached the conclusion that the evils connected with it were less than those of any other system of labor. Hundreds of thousands of African savages had been christianized under its influence. The kindest relations existed between the slaves and their owners. A cruel or neglectful master or mistress was rarely found. The sense of responsibility pressed heavily on the slave-owners, and they generally did the best they could for the physical and religious welfare of the slaves. The bondage in which the negroes were held was not thought a wrong to them because they were better off than any other menial class in the world."

Oh, dear. I read this and am outraged. Over a hundred years ago, young Claude Wright (and probably my grand mother and grandfather as well) read it and believed it.

Never mind that his family had not been slave owners (only a small proportion of Southerners were.)

The glorification of the Noble South is the sub text that runs through these pages.

"Women of every degree shared the enthusiasm, and courageously, though sadly, sent their loved ones to the army."

The ruined plantation house . . . Reconstruction . . . Oppression and Tyranny . . . the Ku Klux Klan . . . it's all here in this textbook.

A text book for racists.

It reminds me of the song from "South Pacific"

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

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Victoria said...

A very powerful post, Vicki. Thank God/dess times have changed. I suppose there will always be racists, but at least it's not an acceptable attitude any more.

Martin H. said...


A thoughtful and totally relevant post.

Merisi said...

We have come a long way, in many ways, thank heavens! Every now and then I read the letters to the editor at the Washington Post website, unfortunately most of the time they are cause for heartache, seeing all the bile out there still, some fellow human beings are still a long way from a colorblind society. That truly saddens me every time I encounter these haters and demagogues.

Miss_Yves said...

Recently, I discoverd an old book of geography (from the beginning of the 20 ème century ) which belonged to my parents -in -law , and I was very surprised to read racist theories , shown as scientific facts, scientific proofs...
My parents and parents-in-law were not at all "vicious racists",(and the situation was softer than in the USA, of course) but their ideas were full of prejudices :they had been taught to believe to the superiority of white people . ..

Vicki Lane said...

As long as we divide the world into Them and Us -- along lines of race, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, etc., we are in danger of thinking of Them as other -- not fully human or deserving of rights.

We have come a long way indeed but we're not there yet.

I have a similar old geography book, Miss Yves -- I've been meaning to do a post about it as well. It was basically one big justification for colonialism.

Reader Wil said...

I remember that at one time I read "Gone with the Wind"and "Roots" at the same time. There is no greater contrast possible!

Miss_Yves said...

The fifth picture recalls "Gone with the wind"!
WhenI was a child, One of my favourite foreign books was Hariett beecher-Stove's novel...With "little ladies"(for different reasons !)

Vicki Lane said...

Reader Wil -- I adored GONE WITH THE WIND as a teenager -- now, of course, I realize that ROOTS gives a much different perpective and ought to be required reading along with the romanticism of GWTW.

Miss Yves -- By Little Ladies do you mean Little Women by Louisa May Alcott? Meg and Jo and Beth and Amy?
That was one of my very favorites -- I had my grandmother's copy.

Jon Lee said...

This is very interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I also picked up my first Vicki Lane mystery today: In a Dark Season.

Vicki Lane said...

Oh, Jon Lee -- I do hope you'll enjoy it!

Miss_Yves said...

Yes , of course, "little women ";
my favourite character was
Jo !!!!!!!!
The french translation was: "les quatre filles du docteur March"

Vicki Lane said...

Jo was MY favorite too! I really wanted her to marry Laurie but when she ended up with Professor Baer, he seemed better for her. And then we got the grown-up Jo in the sequal LITTLE MEN -- I wonder if you read that one too?

Tipper said...

We really do learn what we are taught as children-can be a wonderful thing to think about or a horrible thing to think about.

Vagabonde said...

That is an interesting post and I liked looking at your old textbook. But we have not come such a long way yet – may be as far as race is concerned, but not as far as religion. I was just reading on another blog about a school board which took the popular fantasy book “The Golden Compass” off the shelves of libraries in many schools because the author is believed to be an atheist. Another school has taken off some books written by a Muslim. One of my colleagues at work was thinking about “homeschooling” his kids and looked at the textbooks for home schooling. He could not believe it – he said so many facts were changed in US history or not mentioned at all as well as in science that he changed his mind. But the Texas State Board of Education which approves 30% of the textbooks in the US has now a majority of “Christian Right” people reviewing the books and who change them to reflect their views. This does not give the kids the chance to learn about different viewpoints and will hurt them in the long run. In August 2008 a judge ruled that the University of California does not have to accept credits from high schools which teach “from a religious perspective.” I also remember when here in Cobb County the school board placed stickers in science books saying that “evolution was just a theory” and professors at the university level said they would not accept kids from Cobb! I recall that this was in 2000 because I was in Italy at the time and it made headlines there. So, here we are in 2010 with textbooks changed so they are more politically correct in regards to race, but going backward when it comes to religion. When will American children be free to learn without prejudices taught to them?

Vicki Lane said...

It's such a problem -- who gets to decides what is Correct? We all of us have out prejudices and many of us haven't overcome the lies we learned as children.

I've seen some of those Creationist textbooks and it just make me want to cry, to think of what children are learning as fact.

And I'm sure there are Fundamentalist parents who see it the exact opposite way.

A dilemma.