May 12 2021
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Previous story A Portland Parent Found Her Daughter's Textbook Racist. Her Teacher Has a Contract That Says He Could Use It Anyway. Next story

Story by Latisha Jensen - Story Source
Published on Tuesday March 9, 2021 - 12:43 AM

When Danielle Blake reviewed her fifth grade daughter's history textbook last year, she found it filled with degrading and racist language—and she found Portland Public Schools' response to her concerns just as upsetting.

"I didn't understand why a parent's concerns couldn't even be discussed," says Blake, whose daughter attends Capitol Hill Elementary in Southwest Portland.

Christopher Naze, her daughter's fifth grade history teacher at Capitol Hill, taught from a 10-book series titled A History of US by Joy Hakim.

As Blake was helping her 12-year-old daughter with her homework, she noticed that the texts distorted the history of slavery and the suffering of Indigenous peoples during colonization.

Blake documented dozens of examples from the book, first published in 1993 and updated in 2005. Among them:

"To run a plantation well, you need to be intelligent and industrious. A plantation owner is like a business executive. He is responsible for the work and the workers," reads one passage.

In another, Hakim writes: "But most slave owners – even if they were cruel – thought of their slaves as valuable property. They might beat them, but they tried not to do them serious harm. They needed to keep their property healthy."

The texts also call Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, a "model slave owner," and describe Harriet Tubman as having unusual traits. "[She] was tiny – just five feet tall – but this Harriet was stronger than most men. She could lift great weights, withstand cold and heat, chop down big trees, and go without food when necessary. She had been trained, in childhood, to take abuse. That was part of what it meant to be a slave."

Darrell Millner, former longtime director of Portland State University's Black studies department, says the passages Blake flagged offer simplistic, often factually wrong and racist descriptions of Black figures. But, to Millner, it comes as no surprise.

"Rather than humanizing them and making them a connection that we can share across racial lines," Millner says, "we set them apart, and they're almost unrecognizable as human beings."

Naze and Capitol Hill Elementary Principal Aimee Alexander-Shea did not respond to WW's requests for comment.

The school district says the books in question are no longer being used. Blake says PPS dodged a real discussion of the content when the pandemic made photocopying textbook pages too arduous to keep using A History of US.

Portland Public Schools is an institution that professes anti-racist policies and claims to put racial equity at the forefront of every aspect of students' education. But when Blake made an issue of the textbook, she discovered a larger issue at play: Portland teachers have a clause in their contract that gives them the discretion to pick whatever books they like for their classrooms.

Debates over which textbooks are appropriate for children have long been part of American politics—though what typically gains attention are conservative parents who complain their kids are being indoctrinated. As the nation continues its widespread racial reckoning and debate over who controls the past, Blake and Naze's clash may offer a glimpse of the future.