from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1998

Keeping an eye on the scams, shams and swindles

It Will Be a Shame If Teachers
Follow This Dishonest "Guide"

The Public Broadcasting Service's television series titled Africans in
is a good presentation of some important history, but the
Teacher's Guide that has been published in conjunction with the series
is loaded with falsity and with politically correct disinformation. Do the
corporate sponsors of Africans in America know that the Teacher's
persistently distorts the historical record and conflicts with the
television production, undermining that production's educational value?

Sheldon M. Stern

In October the Public Broadcasting Service unveiled Africans in America, a series of television programs produced by WGBH (Boston). The series is subtitled America's Journey Through Slavery, and it comprises four 90-minute programs.

PBS's advance publicity for Africans in America promised us a "landmark historical documentary series," a "groundbreaking" companion book, and a valuable Teacher's Guide for use by middle-school and high-school educators. Viewers of the television series and readers of the companion book have not been disappointed. The series is well done, the companion book follows the series closely, and both are worthy resources for anyone who wants to learn or to teach about the real historical record on slavery.

The Teacher's Guide, however, is the worst example of educational disinformation and historical deception that I have seen in several years. The disparity becomes especially obvious and alarming when we examine how the television series and the companion book (on the one hand) and the Teacher's Guide (on the other) treat the slave trade and the early evolution of slavery in British America.

The Television Series

The first Africans in America program gives substantial attention to the origin and nature of the Atlantic slave trade. With refreshing candor, the script acknowledges that slavery was an ancient fact in Africa. The same candor prevails as the narrative advances to the Atlantic trade itself, and the program examines both sides of the slavery equation -- the African side as well as the European side. For example, the script draws upon an 18th-century narrative by Olaudah Equiano, an African who was captured by other Africans and was eventually delivered to Europeans. We learn that, before any European saw him, Equiano was sold to one African master after another, that in one transaction he brought a price of 172 cowrie shells, and that he was exposed to a bewildering array of African languages and cultures which were alien and frightening to him [see note 1, below].

West Africans, the script affirms, became absorbed in their large-scale slave trade, acquiring their human merchandise through slave raids and warfare. Viewers learn that this trade eventually accounted for the enslavement of perhaps 20 million people, and that about 11 million of these were shipped to the Western Hemisphere -- but only half a million, fewer than 5 percent, went to the British colonies in North America. The rest went to South America and the Caribbean.

The first television program also provides a balanced account of how, in 17th-century British America, slavery became entangled with race. This complex and gradual development -- this "terrible transformation," as the script-writers call it -- is powerfully illustrated by the story of "Antonio, a Negro." Antonio worked for a lifetime to become a prosperous Virginia planter who called himself Anthony Johnson and who commanded the labor of blacks and of whites alike [note 2]. But the world of possibilities that Antonio knew, and that enabled him to turn himself into Anthony Johnson, eventually ceased to exist. After the "terrible transformation," apparently, Johnson's heirs could not even preserve their own liberty.

The second television program deals with events and social circumstances during the second half of the 18th century, and it highlights the story of Venture Smith, a black slave in New England. While "freedom fever" was sweeping through the colonies, Smith worked tirelessly to gain liberty for himself and his family -- yet Smith later bought slaves of his own, and he felt "cheated and betrayed" when they ran away and he lost his investment [note 3].

This program makes clear that slavery was an accepted feature of 17th-century and 18th-century societies. The fact that the British colonies in North America became parts of the worldwide slavery network was not remarkable. It would have been extraordinary and unprecedented if they had avoided doing so.

The Companion Book

The companion book -- written by Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, and WGBH's Series Research Team -- has four major parts, corresponding to the four programs in the television series. Like the series, the book is titled Africans in America.

In dealing with the slavery that was practiced in Africa before the arrival of Europeans, Part One of the book is even more explicit than the first television program. Here are some passages from the book's first few pages:

The white man did not introduce slavery to Africa. The bowing of one human being before another was an accepted notion from the moment man first sensed frailty on the part of a rival. And by the fifteenth century, men with dark skin had become quite comfortable with the concept of man as property. . . . [page 2]

Long before the arrival of Europeans on West Africa's coast, the two continents shared a common acceptance of slavery as an unavoidable and necessary -- perhaps even desirable -- fact of existence. The commerce between the two continents, as tragic as it would become, developed upon familiar territory. Slavery was not a twisted European manipulation, although Europe capitalized on a mutual understanding and greedily expanded the slave trade . . . . [page 5]

During this era, Africans and Europeans stood together as equals, companions in commerce and profit. Kings exchanged respectful letters across color lines and addressed each other as colleagues. Natives of the two continents were tied into a common economy . . . . [page 7]

These explanations are reinforced by a lengthy quotation from Samuel Sulemana Fuseini, a modern Ghanaian educator and politician, who acknowledges that the great wealth accumulated by his Asante forefathers was based on slavery.

We meet Olaudah Equiano on page 60, where he is characterized as "one of 10 million to 12 million Africans sold to Europeans by men whose faces mirrored his own" -- a common fate where children were routinely sold into slavery if their upper teeth erupted too soon, or if they walked or talked too early or too late, or (in the case of young girls) if they started to menstruate before attaining the "proper" age. Equiano, driven by his African captors, traveled for seven months before he first encountered Europeans on the African coast.

Reading further, we learn (on page 70) that "Half of the more than 20 million Africans captured and sold into slavery never even made it to the slave ship. Most died on the march to the sea" -- while they still were the property of African raiders and African slave-traders. These figures suggest that the number of African slaves who died at the hands of other Africans, before leaving their native continent, was five to ten times greater than the number of slaves who died aboard European ships!

The companion book also endorses the conclusion, presented in the television program, that slavery evolved slowly and unevenly in the British colonies, gradually becoming entangled with racial distinctions:

The first Virginia colonists thought of themselves as Christians or Englishmen, not white people. The word white was not yet used to refer to a type of person. There were owners and servants, and the only thing that made one servant different from another was the contracted length of servitude. If you were a servant, your color did not improve or exacerbate that situation. Black and white servants were oppressed equally. They performed the same tasks and were punished in the same way when they were perceived to have failed in some way. White women, later deemed fairest and most fragile, not only worked in the fields alongside black servants, but also were briskly reprimanded at the whipping posts. [page 40]

But all of that began to change, we learn, sometime during the middle of the 17th century. Persons who enjoyed wealth and power began to treat black and white workers differently, perhaps as a way of fostering hostilities that would make the two groups easier to control. With the rise of racial categorization, "the English gradually chose to describe themselves not as Christians, but as white people." And at about the same time,

powerful Virginia landowners began to realize that enslaving Africans made good economic sense. England's economy had revived, and fewer indentured servants were signing up for the voyage to the colony. . . . In 1641, Massachusetts became the first English colony to recognize slavery as a legal institution. Connecticut followed in 1650; Virginia in 1661. In 1663, a Virginia court decided that if a child was born to a slave, that child would also be enslaved. An African woman could no longer rejoice in the fact that her child would be born free. [pages 40 through 42]

The Teacher's Guide

The Teacher's Guide -- which purports to furnish two "lessons" related to each television program -- opens with a message from Bankers Trust, a company that helped pay for the television production. At the end of the message, Bankers Trust tells us that "An understanding of the common history we share as Americans is a strong foundation from which all communities can work together and prosper."

That statement seems ironic, because the "common history" that has been presented so effectively and candidly in the series, and in the companion book as well, is essentially absent from the Teacher's Guide itself. Unlike the television script or the companion book, the Teacher's Guide persistently distorts the historical record, deals in evasions and half-truths, promotes presentism and Victimism, and paints a picture of evil, guilty whites and flawless, innocent blacks.

How did it happen that, over the years, hundreds of thousands of West Africans arrived as slaves in the English colonies in America? The Teacher's Guide shuns that topic entirely and says only that the Africans were "abducted from their homelands" -- by persons unknown, it would seem. There is no mention of indigenous African slavery, or of the indigenous African slave trade, or of the decisive roles played by the African royal families and African slave-traders who supplied human cargo to European exporters.

The Ghanaian writer and diplomat Kofi Awoonor [note 4] has asserted: "I believe there is a great psychic shadow over Africa, and it has much to do with our guilt and denial of our role in the slave trade. We, too, are blameworthy in what was essentially one of the most heinous crimes in human history." The Teacher's Guide fails to say anything that would enable a student to understand what Awoonor was talking about.

On page 4 of the Teacher's Guide, the teacher is urged to conduct this classroom exercise:

On a map of Africa, find Olaudah Equiano's home (present-day Nigeria). Have students brainstorm a list of words that they think describe life in that part of Africa in the 17th century (e.g., family life, religion, economy).

The word slavery certainly belongs there too, because slavery was the crucial element in Equiano's account of his own "life in that part of Africa," but the writers of the Teacher's Guide have excluded slavery from their list. They are promoting the illusion that, before the advent of the Atlantic slave trade, Africans lived in a pre-slavery Eden.

Likewise, the Teacher's Guide completely ignores the global context in which the Anglo-American slave system took root. The teacher is left without any clue that the vast majority of the African slaves who were shipped to the Western Hemisphere were shipped to colonies in South America and the Caribbean; or that the number of slaves absorbed by Brazil alone was more than six times greater than the number shipped to North America; or that Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888. Nor does the teacher learn that Islamic countries in the Old World imported more African slaves than did all the New World countries and colonies combined [note 5].

Despite these abundant omissions, the Teacher's Guide tells the teacher that students should have to answer such questions as: "When and why did slavery in the British American colonies begin? . . . . Who profited from slavery? Who was dependent on slavery?" But the picture of slavery presented in the Teacher's Guide, a picture that excludes indispensable images of slavery in Africa and in the world as a whole, provides no basis for answering such questions accurately or truthfully.

At one point, the Teacher's Guide even directs the teacher to pose the question "What factors made it possible for Europeans to enslave Africans?" Here the writers Teacher's Guide writers are clearly striving to plant a false impression. They do not want the teacher or the students to understand that Africans were enslaved by other Africans before being sold to Europeans.

In their eagerness to finesse the facts, the writers repeatedly squander opportunities to help the teacher impart the skills of historical analysis. For example: The companion book tells us, on page 65, that "The sad irony of blacks selling blacks never slowed the African merchant's determination to do business with Europeans, since tribal distinctions meant much more than racial ones" -- but there is no hint of this in the Teacher's Guide. Hence the writers have deprived students of the opportunity to grapple with an engaging question: Why was it that Africans valued tribal identity over color, but Europeans (and later, Americans) placed color above all else?

A particularly revealing case of distortion appears on page 10 of the Teacher's Guide, where the writers tell the teacher to conduct an exercise based on an imaginary 18th-century debate over the proposition that "American slavery is an oxymoron." The debaters include Thomas Jefferson, Venture Smith, George Washington and Lord Dunmore [note 6], among others, and students are supposed to discuss "Which side of the debate would each of these people be on and why?" This effort to turn Jefferson, Smith and the others into two-dimensional cut-outs, and to categorize them in a simplistic black-or-white way (no pun intended), is an affront to history. It ignores the contradictions in Washington's and Jefferson's views on slavery, it fails to recognize that Lord Dunmore's motives and objectives were transparently political and military, not ideological, and it surely fails to recognize that Venture Smith was first a black slave but later a black slave-owner. Historical facts suggest that all these persons, to varying degrees, would have spoken on both sides of the argument, yet there is no room for such analytical thinking in the Teacher's Guide.

The Reason Why

Why does the Teacher's Guide differ so radically from the television series and the companion book?

I learned the answer during a telephone discussion with a staff member at WGBH, who told me that the academic historians and other experts who had contributed to the television series and the companion book had not had any direct connection with the group that produced the Teacher's Guide. This group, called the Teacher's Guide Advisory Board, consisted of five persons whom my source described as "multiple-perspective educational activists." The "activists" assembled their so-called lessons -- and the Teacher's Guide was locked up and printed -- before the television series was finished [note 7].

The members of the Advisory Board are listed in the Teacher's Guide. The list indicates that all five are affiliated with schools in Massachusetts, but it doesn't tell what jobs they hold. Are they teachers? If so, how do they explain, to their own students, why the Teacher's Guide is repeatedly in conflict with the television programs and the companion book?

What about the scholars who did such good work in shaping those programs? Do they know that the "teaching materials" publicized at the end of each program actually undermine the programs' educational value?

Finally, how can the Teacher's Guide and its gross distortions of the historical record be tolerated by Americans who presumably are committed to the enrichment of history education? How can they be tolerated by James A. Johnson, for example? Johnson is the chairman of the Fannie Mae Foundation -- another organization that helped pay for the Africans in America television production -- and he has written a message of praise that appears in the Teacher's Guide, on the inside of the back cover. Johnson applauds "the vision of PBS to produce a comprehensive historical context on the issue of slavery in America," but then he says: "We encourage you to use the Teacher's Guide to engage your students in a discussion that will spark a dialogue about the history of slavery. The lessons in the guide are exceptional supplements to the series."

Has Johnson actually looked at those lessons?

It will be a shame if the distorted, falsified "history" in the Teacher's Guide -- cloaked in a PBS imprimatur, an endorsement by the National Council for the Social Studies, and laudatory messages from Bankers Trust and James A. Johnson -- gets a free ride from American educators. If that happens, we will know that American schools are still safe dumping grounds for the politically correct ideology that was squarely rejected by the historians, researchers and writers who created the Africans in America television series and its companion book.


  1. To read Equiano's story in full, see The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1995 by Bedford Books. [return to text]

  2. In 1655 an indentured servant named John Casor went to court to keep his master from extending his indenture and making him a slave for life. Casor was an African who had been brought to Virginia sometime during the 1640s. His master was Anthony Johnson. The court ruled in favor of Anthony Johnson and thus consigned Casor to a lifetime of bondage. [return to text]

  3. There were black slave-owners in the British colonies (as the case of Venture Smith illustrates), and later there were black slave-owners in the United States. The census of 1830 showed that 3,775 free blacks owned 12,760 slaves. Most of those black slave-owners lived in the South, but some were recorded in Northern states, in the border states, and in the District of Columbia. Such information usually is excluded from conventional accounts of American slavery -- and it always is excluded from schoolbooks because it conflicts with popular ideology and with Victimist stereotypes. [return to text]

  4. See "On Slavery, Africans Say the Guilt Is Theirs, Too," by Howard W. French, in The New York Times, 27 December 1994. [return to text]

  5. Although slavery has been abolished from most of Africa, an active commerce in black slaves persists today in the Islamic states of Sudan and Mauritania. Moreover, it appears that some slaves captured and traded in those countries are eventually exported to other Islamic nations. Teachers can learn more about the contemporary African slave trade by contacting the American Anti-Slavery Group, based in Somerville, Massachusetts. The Group has a Web site at http://www.anti-slavery.org. [return to text]

  6. Lord Dunmore's Proclamation, in 1775, offered freedom to the slaves of rebels (as opposed to the slaves of loyalists) if they would take up arms for George III. [return to text]

  7. On page 2 of the Teacher's Guide, a passage headlined "About the Series" includes this note: "Program titles may change." This confirms that the Guide was printed before the programs were completed. [return to text]

Items described in this article

Africans in America
a television series distributed in October 1998 by the Public Broadcasting Service.

Africans in America
1998. 494 pages. ISBN: 0-15-100339-4. Harcourt Brace & Company,
15 East 26th Street, New York, New York 10010. (This is the
companion book to the Africans in America television series.)

Africans in America: Teacher's Guide
1998. 32 pages. (This booklet, issued by the WGBH Educational
Foundation, is promoted as a resource for teachers who want to build
lessons based on the Africans in America television series.)

Sheldon M. Stern, a specialist in 20th-century American history, is the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, in Boston. Since 1993 he has directed the Library's American History Project for High School Students, helping teachers develop lessons in which students work with primary sources and learn to evaluate historical evidence. His recent article "Evidence! Evidence! All You People Talk About Is Evidence!" appeared in the March 1998 issue of History Matters!


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