Textbooks in the early 20th century said Reconstruction was a gross error and black people needed to be dominated.
At a time when there’s a national debate over critical race theory and how much of America’s worst moments should be taught in American schools, a new book seeks to provide some context for how history textbooks traditionally came to focus on the experiences of white Americans and downplay the experiences of Black Americans.
In Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity, out Sept. 27, Harvard University researcher Donald Yacovone analyzed 220 history textbooks from 1832 to the present day. Among his biggest takeaways, he found that textbooks mostly focused on national politics. Because African Americans were underrepresented in that arena, their stories were often left out. “There’s a very limited understanding of what history is,” Yacovone tells TIME.
Here, Yacovone talks about the most surprising bits of information he found in these textbooks, and how the books are a window into how America presents itself to the next generation of leaders.
TIME: Why did you decide to write a book on history textbooks?
YACOVONE: I don’t want people to think I’m some disaffected, leftover 60s radical who can’t stand America and is out to get it. That’s not me. And that’s not how this book happened. It was completely by mistake. I was writing another book. I needed just a brief respite, so I decided to go over to the Gutman Library at the School of Education at Harvard and examine a couple of history textbooks to see how they dealt with the abolitionists. Well, I had no idea what I was walking into. I went to the now defunct Special Collections Division at the library, and the head of the department, Rebecca Martin, introduced me to their collection of textbooks—over 3,000. And I was just stunned. I had no idea they had this collection.