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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Keepers of the Flame

How Guardians of Their Own Narratives Limit What We Teach Young People

A couple of years ago I wrote a column in SLJ titled "The way we present the topic of slavery to young people is all wrong" One of the main themes in it was that, if you read the careful studies of Atlantic slavery that have been done in recent years, it is clear that it was Africans who sold Africans into slavery. That piece set off a small comment thread, some interested in my argument, some severely critical. Thus it was especially gratifying this past Friday to see Henry Lewis Gates, the preeminent African-American historian, publish a long Op-Ed making precisely the same point about the slave trade: My point is not to say that I was right, but rather that the scholars Gates mentions are precisely the same ones I’d read, and whose work made it clear that the stories we had been telling were wrong. In other words, there is easily available information that challenges one way of telling the story of slavery — as a case of racial oppression with white over black. Of course that did happen, but so did blacks enslaving and selling blacks, and whites fighting to end the slave trade. 
     This week the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has been running articles and editorials encouraging American Jews to speak up — to show that they do not consider criticicism of the Israeli government to be anti-Israel. That is precisely the position taken by the American advocacy group J. Street. Once again this is view that I and others have expressed in books for young readers — which have been condemned by self-appointed spokespeople who claim we are not being fair or balanced. Those who want a narrative that does not question Israel are similar to those who insist on a narrative in which Africans are purely victims. Just the other day, over at the CCBC listserv, during a discussion of boys and reading, one poster insisted that the "hegemonic" male culture was so dominant that it was crucial to push boys into other roles through reading. Yet again an advocate for one view — in this case apparently that of women or minorities — was painting the world in terms of victims and victimizers and insisting that what we bring to young readers must be determined by the forces in that larger battle.
      It is time to move past the idea that young people are so impressionable, and so at the mercy of a supposedly "hegemonic" dominant culture, that our place is to pass on new myths, new legends, where ruler and ruled switch places. It is OK  to share with young people the complexity of human action — Africans who suffered horribly in slavery, and Africans who profited from selling Africans; Jews who were slaughtered by Hitler, and went on to create a marvelous state in Israel, but Israeli policies that essentially erase Palestinians from view; just as, in describing the suffering of Palestinians it is also important to speak about destructive and violent groups. Kids need honesty from us, not new mythologies.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    I always say run when there is consensus, and in teaching critical thinking, it is necessary to demonstrate that there are different points of view. It is important to consider what is hidden from and by public opinion, and given the opportunity to think without being asked to agree, children, especially adolescents, come up with interesting ideas and conclusions. We often learn more from those who disagree than with those we tend to agree with. The classroom is not the place to construct illusions, delusions, and irrational conclusions and beliefs.