Imagine an eleventh-grade classroom in American history in early fall. The text is Life and Liberty; students are reading Chapter 2, “Exploration and Colonization.” What happens when an African American girl shoots up her hand to challenge the statement “Not until 1497 to 1499 did the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sail around Africa”? From rap songs the girl has learned that Phoenicians beat da Gama by more than two thousand years. Does the teacher take time to research the question and find that the student is right, the textbook wrong? More likely, s/he puts down the student’s knowledge: “Rap songs aren’t appropriate in a history class!” Or s/he humors the child: “Yes, but that was long ago and didn’t lead to anything. Vasco da Gama’s discovery is the important one.” These responses allow the class to move “forward” to the next topic. They also contain some truth: the Phoenician circumnavigation didn’t lead to any new trade routes or national alliances, because the Phoenicians were already trading with India through the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Textbooks don’t name Vasco da Gama because something came from his “discovery,” however. They name him because he was white. Two pages later, Life and Liberty tells us that Hernando de Soto “discovered [the] Mississippi River.” Of course, it had been discovered and named Mississippi by ancestors of the American Indians who were soon to chase de Soto down it. Textbooks portray de Soto in armor, not showing that by the time he reached the river, his men and women had lost almost all their clothing in a fire set by Natives in Alabama and were wearing replacements woven from reeds. De Soto’s “discovery” had no larger significance and led to no trade or white settlement. His was merely the first white face to gaze upon the Mississippi. That’s why most American history textbooks include him. From Erik the Red to Peary at the North Pole to the first man on the moon, we celebrate most discoverers because they were first and because they were white, not because of events that flowed or did not flow from their accomplishments. My hypothetical teacher subtly changed the ground rules for da Gama, but they changed right back for de Soto. In this way students learn that black feats are not considered important while white ones are.

Source: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (pp. 45-46). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

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