Child Watch® Column:
Teaching the Truth About America’s History: Only the Truth Can Make Us Free

Release Date: October 16, 2015

Marian Wright Edelman

The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.

--Theodore Roosevelt

History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.

--Howard Zinn

Were my African ancestors, who were stolen at gunpoint from their homes and families, dragged in chains into the dark and crowded cargo hulls of ships for the often-fatal Middle Passage, and brutalized, beaten, and forced into chattel slavery for generations, just like many of the other “immigrants” who came to America in order to “work”? Fifteen-year-old Pearland, Texas student Coby Burren didn’t think so when he saw this map caption in his World Geography textbook in the section on “Patterns of Immigration”:


“The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”

About one hundred and fifty thousand other Texas high school students received the same textbook in their history classes this year, and many of them may have mistaken that caption for truth. Coby knew it was wrong and texted his mother a picture to show her what he was being “taught.”

After his mother Roni Dean-Burren, a University of Houston doctoral student, took a closer look, she shared a video on social media documenting her outrage over the geography book’s mischaracterization of slavery. Both Coby and his mother were willing to stand up and speak out about this distortion of our national past which haunts our present and continues to threaten our future.

Within hours McGraw-Hill, the book’s publisher, apologized stating they “conducted a close review of the content and agree that our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves.” They announced plans to make online changes immediately and reissue a corrected version of the book. After Ms. Dean-Burren and others raised concerns about the initial promise to fix the next print edition, given that many districts who already have purchased one edition will not buy another for several years, McGraw-Hill announced it will distribute revised textbooks and/or stickers to correct the caption to all schools that own the current edition.

I’m very proud of Coby who has attended the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program where he was exposed to excellent and carefully selected books that teach the truth about American and African American history and culture. He learned what I hope all children of all races learn—that he was not too young to make a difference in his family, school, community, nation, and world. And I’m very grateful Coby’s mother joined her son to demand an accurate recounting of forced slavery in our nation whose legacy haunts us still. Their actions may make a difference for thousands of other Texas students who would have continued using geography textbooks with inaccurate and misleading language for years. Parents everywhere must be vigilant about the books their districts are choosing for their children, read them and, like Ms. Dean-Burren, not be afraid to speak up when changes are necessary. Perhaps we need to have parent book clubs to read and discuss the accuracy of history and geography textbooks their children read.

While it is unclear who was finally responsible for this caption, there have been other concerns about the way Texas education officials influence the content of textbooks and the teaching of history. Because Texas is such a large textbook purchasing market with more than 5.2 million K-12 public school students, publishers may often capitulate to requests for changes that meet some state curriculum demands. Once books have been created that meet Texas standards the same texts may be distributed in other states.

Another controversy erupted recently when groups in Texas were joined by those in other states including Oklahoma, Georgia, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Tennessee and the Republican National Committee in challenging the College Board’s updated framework for Advanced Placement U.S. History courses. The College Board develops the tests taken by all students in Advanced Placement courses nationwide, and critics said the framework emphasized “negative” aspects of American history too much without enough emphasis on other areas like the Founding Fathers, military achievements, and “American exceptionalism.” In July the College Board announced a revised framework that included some of these suggested changes.

Who is writing and influencing the history our children are taught? Should a few education officials in Texas or any state drive decisions about what all of our children learn or sugarcoat the truth? Coby and his mother did the right thing and students should not have to be the last line of defense against untruthful and even offensive materials getting into their school backpacks. Only the truth can make us free. George Orwell reminded us that “he who controls the past controls the future.”

We must go forward in our multiracial multicultural nation and world and not slide backwards toward the dark legacies of slavery, Native American genocide, and exclusion of women and nonpropertied men of all races from our electoral process by our founding fathers. And we must work tirelessly to eradicate their continuing effects on our national life and the growing voices of those who want to turn back the clock of racial and economic progress reflected in mass incarceration, voter suppression, an unjust criminal justice system, separate and unequal schools, and massive poverty and economic inequality that plague us still. Only the truth can make us free.

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Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Michele at: February 16, 2017
Teach Truth in our History classes! Indians-Cherokee Trail of Tears-Japanese encampments-genocide within USA

Submitted by Nell at: August 12, 2016
Read White Cargo. Whites were indeed forced against their will, many of them children, to board ship and become what amounted to life long slaves in America and before it ever happened to blacks.

Submitted by Verner Hornung at: March 6, 2016
One may note that written history also enables intergroup hatreds to persist for centuries, long after the original offenses would otherwise have been forgotten. As for the caption, most of the traffic in African slaves actually went to Brazil and the Caribbean, with perhaps “only” half million brought to the United States. Most US slaves were born here, an arrangement slaveholders favored because they would grow up speaking English and somewhat acculturated to servitude. Importation was more crucial to supply in the tropics because of high death rates there. Trade was banned in 1808, a factor doubtless adding strength to the ideology of hereditary slavery. I’m indeed unimpressed with the general quality of schoolbooks and skeptical of Texas’ ten-gallon influence over this market. It’s a near scam: These books often run over $200 a copy.

Submitted by Debbie Downer at: October 30, 2015
As horrific and disturbing truth can be, only truth empowers the will to change and stand up to oppression and genocide.

Submitted by Becky at: October 27, 2015
I love admire and respect the courage strength care love an fight MS. MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN has always had for our CHILDREN. History is just part of the problem. Our oppressed hated confused youth see these facts feel tgese facts. All day every day. Love & respect for exactly who you are b4 weave, skin lighteners, money, to impress clothes. I was taught a very impotant fact. We sre entertainment, we keep them laughing. No matter how much character money knowledge education position, all we are are N...... to them. My GRANDFATHER WAS RIGHT. We have sold ourselves to being anthing but who we are. Develop positive character and live of what GOD created us to look like. If we beat ou kid like the copper did at the school it would be considered child abuse. Any teacher couselor family member would be JAILED. LIVING A LIFE WITOUT FEAR OF THE ABUSESE AND MURDERS CONDONED IN THIS COUNTRY MATTER. YET TGE SYMPATHY WORRY and outrafe goes to other countrues. Thank You have 2 go

Submitted by Nikki at: October 20, 2015
This is an extraordinary effort on that young man's behalf to point out these errors in our history. I tried that in W.Va. about 60 years ago and was sent to the office. We need more to speak out!!!

Submitted by Granny2ten at: October 18, 2015
I could not agree more. What a wonderful article and suggestion to have a parent reading club. Coby Burren, another HYPE (Houston's Youth Program for Enrichment) Freedom School scholar making a difference........

Submitted by Linda at: October 17, 2015
So proud you speak truth to power. Keep it up. I pray for you.

Submitted by Linda at: October 17, 2015
So glad you speak truth to power. Than you so much.

Submitted by Anonymous at: October 17, 2015
I'm so glad we have Dr. Edelman who champions the efforts to better the lives for children at all cost. You have never turned your lifelong journey into a legacy that will never ever be forgotten. I've come to know you through your lifelong efforts of eradicating wrongs as it relates to being born in this country with all of its disadvantages with health care, education, & housing etc! I applaud you & Love you for what you stand for & may God continue to bless you. Noble

Submitted by MickeyD12 at: October 17, 2015
This article highlights the urgency needed to be actively involved with our local school districts, and state education boards. The community involvement is necessary to hold accountable those in the publishing business and others who may have profit motive and poor intentions to continue to distort or mislead a populace. It is ever important that the struggle to correct biased, half truths. The primary education goes a long way in influencing the developing minds of youngsters and will have a profound impact on their decisions in the future. I agree we must stay vigilant in this effort.

Submitted by katzz65 at: October 16, 2015
This article and information like it's is just what the people of this country needs.We the people, need to know the that our children know the truth about that history is repeated because of ignorance.

Submitted by Rema at: October 16, 2015
This is a powerful call for more input from parents and teachers. I just finished a reading in an adult book discussion group of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. We all agreed that this book should be taught in high schools and the patterns of "settler colonialism" persist not only in our country but in our interactions with other nations.

Submitted by Karimsken at: October 16, 2015
As a teacher for over ten years it this article is highlighting a truth that teachers have been concerned about for years. Slavery and other abuses conducted by Americans and Europeans have been white washed. Topics like colonialism and exploration are characterized as adventures and cultures sharing with others. In reality the Atlantic Slave trade and colonization of the Continent of Africa were brutal invasions by insurgents bent on gaining wealth and power by destroying other countries. The truth is Columbus was a murderer and many of our founding fathers were slave owners. I applaud the Children's Defense fund for their efforts to highlight the truth. I have been apart of Freedom School. The education given to youth is life changing. Keep up the good work.

Submitted by ginas13 at: October 16, 2015
Rewriting the future is always the start of a reign of ignorance, terror, fundamentalism. You have to wonder who it benefits to lie.

Submitted by Marzo at: October 16, 2015
To hide the facts of slavery will not help, but we need to hear all the stories. Have you heard about the Maroons in Jamaica who ran away when they were taken as slaves to the island? They hid away and were eventually given their freedom, their own land, and were allowed to govern themselves. They were never slaves and the descendants of those communities are still there today. I know one of their leaders and he is working with a university to get this oral history documented. They still speak a fusion of African languages and keep a lot of the traditions going. These are the stories we need to hear!

Submitted by ettie at: October 16, 2015
Good for Coby and his mom. The real truth needs to be told.