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Black educator: 'Multicultural' textbooks still wrong

STANFORD -- Two years ago, educator Joyce King made headlines when, as a member of the California Curriculum Commission, she denounced the new "multicultural" history and social science textbooks that the commission was reviewing.

King, a Santa Clara University education professor and an African American, criticized the texts for "egregious racial stereotyping" and "justifications and trivialization of unethical and inhumane social practices, namely racial slavery."

She lost that fight - the texts eventually were approved by the State Board of Education - but she has continued to build awareness in textbooks and classrooms of the many different perspectives that make up America.

She challenges the prevailing "assumption that black students need the corrective" of multiculturalism - offered almost as a favor. This puts down black students and elevates white students, she said. Both groups, she said, need to come to grips with "the ruptured legacy of black children's birthright."

Instead of "multicultural education," King said, we might be better off seeking "multi-perspective" education - one that allows more than a single point of view that occasionally glances at a sampling of non- white heroes.

The California texts are of particular concern, King said, since they have been "politically canonized" by their acceptance as the only approved textbooks in the largest state in the nation.

"They are offered as a model for national standards," she said.

King, who received her doctorate from the Stanford School of Education in 1975, this year is an American Council on Education fellow at Stanford. The fellowship allows young faculty members to study university administration under sponsoring mentors.

At a March meeting of the education honorary society Phi Delta Kappa at Stanford, King held up the standard Houghton-Mifflin fifth-grade text. It features a westward-bound covered wagon on the cover and the title America Will Be, taken from a poem by 20th-century black poet Langston Hughes.

"We've got pioneers and Langston Hughes - multicultural, right?" she said. "But when you put these images together, what are you creating? What else went on with this crossing? When we put everyone in the covered wagon, we distort a lot of people's experience. What was happening to them when these wagons were rolling?

"It takes wisdom, consciousness, and political will to raise these questions," King said. "Not all teachers are ready to deal with these issues - they don't have the time.

"And it's not done by this kind of tricky cute stuff," she said, tapping the book cover. "Kids can see through that.

"Some people came up to me and said, 'Why are you complaining? There's blacks practically jumping off these pages. The problem is meaning -- a symbolic reality has been created."

Efforts towards a truly multicultural education, King said, are sabotaged by "an impatience, an unwillingness to analyze. There's an attitude of 'Let's get on with it. Let's have a unified society, or we'll be like Yugoslavia.' "

As an example of how the textbooks try to look at different cultures but from only a single perspective, she pointed to the sixth-grade text's statements on how the slave trade was supported by Africans selling one another. As a classroom exercise, it asks children to pretend they are African villagers in 1577, with a Portuguese slave ship arriving tomorrow. Should they sell one another?

King said this passage is "a slander of a whole continent" - a serious distortion of African history that humiliates black students.

"The people sold initially were captives of war or 'lineage- less' " - not villagers selling each other," she said. "There were rules governing slavery in Africa - especially in Islamic societies."

Ethically, she said, the text overlooks the question: "Should the Portuguese have been there buying slaves in the first place?"

The slave trade, which continued over four centuries, caused "massive destruction to African society," she said. "Eventually, the European slave trade fomented war among tribes."

The textbooks also ignore the issue "that race had never been used to justify slavery until the Atlantic slave trade."

Perceptions of blacks

During her presentation, King asked two groups to discuss among themselves separate questions: What would the United States be like if Africans were just arriving in this country? What particular qualities do African Americans have as learners?

When discussing the impact of African Americans on the development of American society and culture, the first group noted blacks' role in the arts, sports, labor and agriculture. Eventually, they concluded that America would have not have had its wealth, politics, history or agriculture without African Americans.

After much hemming and hawing, the second group said that, although they did not agree, many perceive black students to be "unmotivated," "militant," "resistant."

"There's a connection between these two questions," King said. "Without blacks, America could very likely have followed the path of Canada."

African Americans, she said, helped to make America politically and economically independent, with attendant developments in human rights and ethical progress as a result of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

"Blacks are a founding population group - along with the Native Americans and Europeans. But look what's happening to these children in schools," she said, pointing to the list of negative attributes on the blackboard. "Why are they not continuing this legacy?"



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