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Strange Fruit Indeed: Interrogating Contemporary Textbook Representations of Racial Violence Toward African Americans

by Anthony L. Brown & Keffrelyn D. Brown - 2010

Background/Context: Recent racial incidents on college and high school campuses throughout the United States have catalyzed a growing conversation around issues of race and racism. These conversations exist alongside ongoing concerns about the lack of attention given to race and racism in the official school curriculum. Given that the field of education is generally located as a space to interrogate why these difficult issues of race in schools and society still persist, this study illustrates how contemporary official school knowledge addresses historical and contemporary issues of race and racism. To do this, we examine how historic acts of racial violence directed toward African Americans are rendered in K12 school textbooks. Using the theoretical lenses of critical race theory and cultural memory, we explicate how historic acts of racial violence toward African Americans receives minimal and/or distorted attention in most K12 texts.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: We examined the knowledge constructed about racial violence and African Americans in the United States. Using the theoretical lenses of critical race theory and cultural memory, we show how the topic of historic acts of racial violence toward African Americans receives minimal and/or distorted attention in most K12 texts. The purpose of this study is to illustrate that although accounts of racial violence that historically have been excluded from textbooks are now being included, this inclusion matters little if it is presented in a manner that disavows material implications of racial violence on sustained White privilege and entrenched African American inequities.

Research Design: The findings from this study come from a textbook analysis of 19 recent U.S. history social studies textbooks adopted by the state of Texas. Drawing from the tradition of recent critical textbook studies, this study used a literary analysis methodology.

Findings/Results: In this study, we found that although narratives of racial violence were present throughout the texts, they often rendered acts of violence as the immorality of single actors or bad men doing bad things. Additionally, these presentations portray violence as disconnected from the institutional and structural ties that supported and benefited from such acts.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The findings from this study illustrate the limited historical and sociocultural knowledge about race and racism provided to teachers and students through K12 social studies textbooks. These findings have direct implications for how teachers and students conceptualize and grapple with real issues of race and racism in schools and society. We suggest that the knowledge contained in school texts must go beyond simply representing acts of racism, situating such acts of racism within the discursive and material realities that have shaped the lives of African Americans in the United States.

In recent years, racial incidents on university, college, and high school campuses have incited conversations about the significance of race and racism in schools and society. For example, on several college campuses, students have opted to observe Martin Luther King Day with what some call ghetto parties. The circulation of images through popular media and the Internet has enabled millions to observe these perverse and racist images of White college students dressed in blackface and drinking 40-ounce bottles of beer, throwing gang signs, flashing gold teeth grills, and donning large gold chains.

Recently, during another racial incident that took place on a high school campus, six African American male students were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy for the beating of a White student.1 This conflict emerged amid growing racial tension after an African American student decided to sit under a tree where White students traditionally congregated. A few days after the fight, White students at the high school hung three nooses from the tree, an act that led to a number of additional racial conflicts between the students. The initial noose incident, commonly referred to as Jena Six, eventually received national attention because of the harsh penalty given to a group of African American male participants and the lack of punishment given to the White students who placed the three nooses under the tree. This event helped to stimulate a growing discussion about the historical and contemporary symbology of the noose.

In the fall of 2007, two recorded incidents occurred that involved the hanging of a noose on university campuses. The first took place in September 2007 at the University of Maryland, College Park, where a noose was found hanging near the universitys cultural center, a building that houses several African American student organizations. Then, in October 2007, a noose was tied onto the office door of Dr. Madonna Constantine, an African American professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Both of these university incidents resulted in criminal investigations and spawned discussions about the significance of hate crimes on college campuses.

An ahistorical reading of these incidents might lead one to believe these acts were simply isolated aberrations. In addition, one might also assume that the perpetrators of these acts were simply immoral or uneducated, without making the connection between these events and the history of race and racism in this country. We introduce this article with these racial incidents because we recognize that a powerful, often unacknowledged relationship exists between the legacy of racial violence in the United States and how contemporary incidents of racial violence can be understood today (Markovitz, 2004). That these racial incidents occurred in educational institutions raises additional questions about the role that official historical and sociocultural knowledge plays in the understanding that teachers and students ultimately possess about race and racism in the United States. We argue that such knowledge informs how teachers and students make sense of the historical and contemporary context of race and racism in the United States and helps to frame how individuals exist (and might exist) in a democratic society. Our concern with textbook knowledge, then, is based on the recognition that knowledge, particularly the forms found in official formal K12 school curriculum, matters. It matters for teachers, who, in the case of the United States, are most likely White, female, and from middle-class backgrounds that include limited (if any) experiences with, and presumably limited knowledge about, race or communities of color (Howard, 1999; Sleeter, 2001). Without direct experiences with, or specific knowledge about, diverse communities or the history of race in the United States, these individuals at best draw from knowledge they gained in their own K12 schooling (and textbooks), as well as what they received in their teacher education programsin institutions that are also heavily populated with faculty who are overwhelmingly White and who too often lack this knowledge themselves (Cochran-Smith, 1995; Dixson & Dingus, 2007; Grant, 1988; Howard, 1999; Ladson-Billings, 2005; Obidah & Howard, 2005; Sleeter, 2008, 2001). In stating this, however, we do not wish to oversimplify this knowledge gap as affecting only White individuals. Students of color, although possessing perhaps more experiential knowledge of race and racism in the United States, are also implicated in the potential gap in knowledge presented about these issues in K12 schooling, textbooks, and, later, in teacher education programs. Indeed, this dilemma presents a problem for all teachers who possess the responsibility for providing students with an equitable education and for preparing them for civic and social life.

It is within this context that we entered this study, considering the question of whether teachers simply will not teach these topics or whether they cannot adequately teach these topics because of the knowledge provided to them in mainstream K12 official curriculum. As teacher educators and researchers concerned with social justiceone who prepares secondary social studies teachers and one who prepares elementary generalist teachers who are expected to teach social studieshow might we understand these racial incidents and curriculum knowledge about race and racism in relation to teacher education? We suggest that in light of the challenges we face (along with many other teacher educators) in preparing preservice and in-service teachers to work effectively with an increasingly diverse K12 student population, these incidents push us to consider the role that school knowledge can play to help read such racial incidents. Here we are particularly concerned with the kinds of historical and sociocultural knowledge currently offered to teachers and students.

To explore this, we focused on how issues of race and racism, particularly the way violence against African Americans is presented in K12 school curricula. We examined how official school curriculum renders and interprets the histories of racial violence against African Americans in the United States. Specifically, we examined if and how K12 social studies textbooks discuss racial violence directed toward African Americans, including the way African Americans resisted in the midst of such conditions.

In the discussion that follows, we begin with a review of the literature on curriculum and textbooks, specifically focusing on how this work has addressed the limitations and biases in African American history in U.S. K12 textbooks. We follow this with an overview of the theoretical frameworks used to guide this study: cultural memory and critical race theory (in education). Cultural memory refers to the narrative, symbols, and discourses that shape how individuals understand and make sense of the past (Flores, 2002; Le Goff, 1977/1992), whereas critical race theory is a theoretical lens that illuminates the discursive and material ways that race operates in society and schools (Bell, 1995; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Solórzano, 1997). Using these frameworks, we present the findings from our analysis of 19 recent textbooks adopted by the state of Texas. These findings illustrate that although historic acts of racial violence toward African Americans and the responses of African Americans to that violence received some attentionalbeit sketchy and distortedin most K12 social studies texts, this knowledge is lacking in important and vital ways. The article concludes with a discussion of these findings and the implications that these findings have for teacher education and K12 schooling.


For decades, scholars have raised questions and concerns about the inadequacies of traditional social studies textbooks (Allen, 1971; Anyon, 1979; Apple, 1993; Banks, 1969; Carlson, 2003; Krug, 1961; Loewen, 1995; Lowenthal, 1997; Van Sledright, 2002). Much of this scholarship has maintained that these texts gloss over events, overgeneralize and/or exclude different group experiences, and provide few to no opportunities for students to make sense of various histories and events in relation to their own lives. These observations illustrate the significant role that schools and school curriculum play in addressing educational inequities. Conversations about what and whose knowledge is most valued in the official school curriculum frame contemporary discussions about achieving equity and social justice for all students. And despite the contested terrain of the term social justice, the question of what and whose knowledge is most valued remains foundational to debates about school inequities. Scholars have referred to the focus of school knowledge in addressing social inequalities as the politics of difference or the politics of recognition (Fraser, 2000; Sleeter & McClaren, 1995).

In more recent years, there has been growing concern regarding whether discussions about recognition, representation, and identity politics have overshadowed concerns about how structural realities help to reproduce school and societal inequities. Philosopher Nancy Fraser (2000) suggested that efforts to achieve social justice must account for both recognition and the structural realities that shape a groups experiences. In a similar vein, we contend that school curricula, specifically the knowledge contained in textbooks, must go beyond simply providing new narratives of difference; it must provide the knowledge that students need to decipher the structural and discursive ways that race informs the past and present.


Throughout the 20th century and into the present, scholars have raised similar concerns about the problematic knowledge circulated about African Americans in social studies textbooks. These authors have critiqued the way in which traditional textbooks helped to reproduce and perpetuate totalizing images of, perspectives on, and beliefs about African Americans (Alridge, 2006; Banks, 1969; Du Bois, 1935; Ernest, 2004; Schomberg, 1925; Woodson, 1933/2000; Woodson & Wesley, 1935; Wynter, 1992). It was also assumed that textbooks provided little historical understanding of the events that have shaped the present social, educational, and political context of African Americans.

Similary, much of the early scholarship about African Americans in U.S history textbooks sought to expose and challenge stereotypical constructions about the history and experiences of African Americans (Banks, 1969; Reddick, 1934; Woodson, 1928; Woodson, 1933/2000). These scholars found that traditional history textbooks often provided truncated and/or historically inaccurate perspectives about African Americans (Bontemps, 1948; Woodson, 1922, 1928; Woodson &Wesley, 1935). In some cases, these same scholars created their own textbooks that provided what they saw as a more accurate portrayal of African American experiences and historical contributions. However, throughout the 20th century, scholars continued to challenge the content, representations, and inaccuracies of textbooks treatment of African American history (Allen, 1971; Anderson, 1986; Alridge, 2006; King, 1992; Swartz, 1992; Wynter, 1992). From this critique, multicultural educators and others worked tirelessly to reform curriculum, arguing that U.S. textbooks required more inclusive and accurate historical narratives (Banks, 2004; Gay, 2004). Yet in spite of these changes, scholars continue to critique textbooks for providing monolithic and simplistic narratives of African American history (Alridge; Hess, 2005). In addition, social studies scholars have pointed out that such problems are not simply a reflection of racial or ethnic histories but also illustrate a larger problem within the social studies curriculum that often avoids controversy and provides one-dimensional stories about people and events in American history (Epstein, 2009; Wineburg, 2000)   

Given these deficiencies, it stands to reason that contemporary social studies textbooks, although presenting a more inclusive story of African American history, may simultaneously present the history of racial violence against African Americans and the concomitant racism that supported these acts in ways that distort, minimize, or oversimplify the story. Indeed, if this is the case, such deficiencies not only curtail the overall intended goals of multicultural curriculum reform but also represent what critical race theorists have argued are the limitations of racial progress achieved in the postCivil Rights era.


This study draws from both the historical lens of cultural memory (Assmann & Czaplicka, 1995; Le Goff, 1977/1992, Flores, 2002; Lowenthal, 1997) and critical race theory (Bell, 1987, 1995; Dixson & Rousseau, 2006; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Cultural memory refers to the narratives, symbols, and discourses that help inform how one can see and think about his or her social worlds in the past and present. In this context, the official school curriculum helps to contain cultural memory into an enclosed narrative. For example, the official social studies textbook offers the reader a conceptual and historical map to make sense of what the United States once was and what it is todayor a kind of imagined or constructed past (Anderson, 1991). Thus, whenever a historical narrative is committed to paper, the architects (e.g., textbook editors, consultants, historians) of that narrative create a specific cultural memory or memories about the past. From this, we argue that K12 social studies textbooks are perhaps one of the most important artifacts that help construct the cultural memory(ies) held by students about African Americans. In recent years, legal scholars interested in concerns with social justice have turned to legal narratives of the past to make sense of structural conditions in the United States. What many found were gaps in the way that race and the history of racism in the United States were understood. Working under the framework of critical race theory, these scholars challenged the cultural memory(ies) held about racial progress in the United States (Bell, 1987; Crenshaw, 1988; Delgado, 1992).

Critical race theory maintains that the efforts of the civil rights movement have not changed longstanding social and educational inequalities for African Americans and other groups of color (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Solórzano, 1997). In particular, critical race theory scholars in education have troubled common-sense historical narratives about the so-called triumphant legal victories of racial equality offered through Brown v. Board of Education and the inclusion of multiculturalism in schools. These authors note such efforts as valiant and noteworthy, but as fundamentally having little effect on changing the structural and material conditions in schools and society (Dixson & Dingus, 2007; Ladson-Billings, 2004; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Some critical race theory scholars in education have also noted the kinds of inclusions and exclusions, with respect to issues of race and racism, that exist within official school knowledge (Ladson-Billings, 2003b; Yosso, 2002).

Akin to critical race theorists (Bell, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 2003a, 2004) who argue that the school integration efforts of the 1960s and 1970s only served as symbolic markers of progress, we would argue that creating history textbooks that are more inclusive and racially balancedyet fundamentally flawed because of limited and/or oversimplified perspectives on racismgives the false impression of a myth of racial progress. In addition, we draw from critical race theory scholars in education who maintain that social studies education is an important place for teachers and students to explore the saliency of race in racism in schools and society (Howard, 2003; Ladson-Billings, 2003b; Tyson, 2003).


The purpose of this study was to examine if and how social studies textbooks portray racial violence against African Americans in the United States. In our initial reading across an interdisciplinary body of scholarship about the history of racial violence against African Americans in the United States, we found that scholars concurrently examined both acts of violence and the response to those acts of violence (Aptheker, 1969; Davenport, 2005; Kelley, 1993; Shapiro, 1988; Tyson, 1998). This suggested to us that in order to understand racial violence, one must concurrently account for how victims of violence respond to such acts.2 Further, this body of work also points to the systematic and institutional ties that acts of violenceeven those done by individualshad to official governing bodies or the state. These authors suggest that in many instances of racial violence, individuals who committed these acts either had direct linkages to local and state officials, or they were ignored and protected by state officials and the legal process. Thus, the following questions guided this examination: How is racial violence against African Americans depicted social studies textbooks adopted by the state of Texas for Grades 5, 8, and 11? How is resistance by African Americans to acts of violence depicted social studies textbooks adopted by the state of Texas for Grades 5, 8, and 11?

Our choice to examine textbooks in the state of Texas is twofold. The first acknowledges the important role that large states like Texas and California have in shaping the national textbook scene (Apple & Oliver, 1996). Second, the state of Texas has a persistent recorded history of racial violence directed toward African Americans. At the turn of the 20th century, Texas was one of the leading states for lynching and other acts of racial violence (Raper, 1969/2003). Additionally throughout the 20th century, the state of Texas recorded some of the most gruesome, brutal, and publicly recognized acts of racial violence in the nations history: the Jesse Washington lynching (see Bernstein, 2005; Carrigan, 2004), the Henry Smith lynching (see Goldsby, 2006) and the James Byrd dragging (see King, 2002). For these two reasons, we viewed the state of Texas as an ideal site to explore how racial violence is rendered within state-adopted K12 textbooks.

In this study, we examined a total of 19 textbooks targeting fifth grade, 6 targeting eighth grade, and 9 targeting eleventh grade. Four of the 11th-grade textbooks were designed for the Advanced Placement (AP) course. Table 1 provides a list of each of the textbooks examined in the study.3

Table 1. Textbooks Examined

Elementary5th grade

Middle8th grade

High11th grade

High AP11th grade

Teachers Curriculum Institute: History Alive! 2002

Authors: Bert Bower and Jim Lobdell

Teachers Curriculum Institute: History Alive! The United States Through Reconstruction System. 2002

Authors: Diane Hart

History Alive! Twentieth Century United States History System.


Author: Teachers Curriculum Institute

Pearson Education, Inc. publishing as Prentice Hall: America Past and Present AP edition. 2003

Authors: Robert Devine, T. H. Breen, George M. Friedrickson, & R. Hall Williams

Pearson Education, Inc. publishing as Scott Foresman: Scott Foresman Social Studies 2003

Authors: Dr. Candy Boyd, Dr. Geneva Gay, Rita Geiger, Dr. James B. Kracht, Dr. Valeri Ooka Pang, Dr. Frederick Risinger, & Sarah Miranda Sanchez

Pearson Education, Inc. publishing as Prentice Hall: The American Nation: Beginnings through 1877TX Ed. 2003

Author: J. W. Davidson

Pearson Education, Inc. publishing as Prentice Hall: America: Pathways to the Present: Modern American History. 2003

Authors: Andrew Cayton, Elisabeth I. Perry, Linda Reed, & Allan M. Winkler

McDougal Littell: The American Pageant. 2002

Authors: David Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, & Thomas A. Bailey

Harcourt School Publishers: Harcourt Horizons-TX Ed. 2003

Authors: Robert Green, Tom McGowan, & Linda Salvucci

McDougal Littell: Creating America: A History of the United States: Beginnings through Reconstruction. 2003

Authors: Jesus Garcia, Donna Ogle, C. Frederick Risinger, Joyce Stevos, & Winthrop Jordan

McDougal Littell: The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century TX Ed. 2003

Authors: Gerald A. Danzer, J. Jorge Klor de Alva, Larry S. Krieger, Louis E. Wilson, & Nancy Woloch

Glencoe/McGraw-Hill: American History: A Survey: AP United States History. 1999

Author: Alan Brinkley

Macmillan/McGraw-Hill: Our NationTX Ed.

Authors: James A. Banks, Richard G. Boehm, Kevin P. Colleary, Gloria Contreras, A. Lin Goodwin, Mary A. McFarland, Walter C. Parker, & The National Geographic Society

Holt, Rinehart and Winston, a division of Harcourt, Inc.: Holt Call to Freedom, Beginnings to 1877TX Ed. 2003

Authors: Sterling Stuckey & Linda Kerrigan Salvucci

Holt, Rinehart and Winston, a division of Harcourt. Inc.: Holt American Nation in the Modern EraTX Ed. 2003

Authors: Paul Boyer & Sterling Stuckey

Wadsworth Group/Thomson Learning: Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People. 2002

Authors: John M. Murrin, Paul E. Johnson, James M. McPherson, Gary Gerstle, Emily S. Rosenberg, & Norman L. Rosenberg


Glencoe/McGraw-Hill: The American Republic to 1877. 2003

Authors: Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley, Albert Broussard, James M. McPherson, Donald Richie, & The National Geographic Society

Glencoe/McGraw-Hill: The American Republic Since 1877. 2003

Authors: Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley, Albert Broussard, James McPherson, Donald Ritchie, & The National Geographic Society


Oxford University Press: A History of US v. 17. 2003

Author: Joy Hakim


Textbooks for Grades 5, 8, and 11 were selected because they are the primary grades in which U.S. American history is taught. With regard to sections used in data analysis, multiple aspects of each textbook were examined, including narrative text, the glossary, and the index. It is important to note that with regard to the history of African Americans in U.S. history, it is common for fifth-grade textbooks to cover the time periods leading to the Middle Passage and up to contemporary times. Eighth-grade texts, however, focus on the Middle Passage, the introduction of slavery, and Reconstruction. Eleventh-grade texts, similarly to the fifth-grade texts, cover the whole span of U.S. history, up to the present. We took these under consideration during our examination of how K12 social studies textbooks characterize racial violence and resistance to racial violence in the history of African Americans in the United States.

We drew our methodology, approach to methods, and presentation of findings from the work of other education scholars who have conducted similar kinds of social studies curriculum research (Alridge, 2006; Hess, 2005). For example, this study, similar to a previous textbook analysis that examined how master narratives of an African American icon get rendered in history curriculum (Alridge), employs the methodology of literary analysis. Drawing from the work of historian Richard Beringer, Alridge suggested that literary analysis is a primary methodology used for analyzing intellectual history, in which the researcher focuses on (1) reading the literature, (2) noting the themes, (3) discussing the themes, and (4) supporting conclusions with examples.

Data analysis took place across three phases and employed a constant comparative method (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The first phase focused on identifying relevant narratives of African American history across each of the textbooks. We decided to do this by first identifying places in the text where key time periods in African American history were present (Marable & Mullings, 2000). The time periods we identified were: Slavery (including the Middle Passage), Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Black Power, and PostCivil Rights/Black Power Movement. From here, we, along with a graduate research assistant, used the table of contents, index, and page-by-page perusal of the textbooks to locate sections for analysis. All marked sections were photocopied and bound together according to the specific textbook from which they derived. Each bound set of photocopies was labeled by textbook and placed in large folders according to grade level (i.e., fifth-grade folders, eighth-grade folders, and eleventh-grade folders).

The second phase of data analysis consisted of two parts. The first part focused on outlining how to make meaning of the acts of violence presented in the text. We (the authors of this article) created a thematic coding scheme informed by the theoretical perspectives of social scientists and historians that measure acts of state violence and terror (Davenport, 2005; Shapiro, 1988). It should be understood, however, that this coding scheme served as a conceptual tool rather than as a strict frame. It was not our intention to quantitatively measure how many acts of violence occurred, nor to quantitatively measure the specific nature of the acts of violence that occurred (Hess, 2005). To make sense of how acts of violence were characterized, we developed the following questions to use when reading acts of violence and resistance found across the textbooks:


Is the violent act (e.g., V) done by an individual (e.g., I) or group of individuals (e.g., G)?


Is the violent act portrayed as haphazard (e.g., H)that is, an action aroused by passion or irrationalityor as strategic (e.g., S)that is, an action aroused by rational thought, purpose, and/or planning?


If the act is strategic, is it understood as possessing structural/institutional links (e.g., S/I) to the past or presentfor example, (1) sponsored by or ignored by state/governmental officials and (2) advancing the sociopolitical and/or economic interests of Whites or some other group in a power position?


Does the passage include a discussion of resistance (e.g., R) to the violence that occurred?


If yes:


Is the resistant act done by an individual (e.g., I) or group of individuals (e.g., G)?


Is the resistant act portrayed as haphazard (e.g., H) or strategic (e.g., S) in nature?

During Part 2 of the second phase, we, along with the research assistant, selected a grade level and read all the sections found in the corresponding grade level textbooks. Each person read through the acts and incidents found in individual textbooks and listed these on a master grade-level sheet. Included in these notations was how the violence and/or resistance was represented using the questions just listed. The grade-level master sheets also included the specific page number and textbook title where the violence and/or resistance was found. An example of this process is shown using a passage found in one of the eighth-grade textbooks:

Throughout the South, whites formed secret societies to drive African Americans out of political life. The most infamous of these groups was the Ku Klux Klan. Dressed in long, hooded robes and armed with guns and swords, Klansmen did their work at night. They started by threatening black voters and officeholders. African Americans who did not heed their threats were beaten, tarred and feathered, and even murdered. (p. 318)

When locating and reading the following example, the reader would use the previously outlined questions to list the relevant themes that emerged on the master grade-level sheet:


Describes the violence used by White individuals, some of whom were in the Ku Klux Klan to threaten black voters and officeholders (VGS); no resistance is noted. (p. 318)

Here, the themes identified through the codeVGSreflect the violent acts (e.g., beatings, tarring, feathering, threatening behavior) that were inflicted by a group of individuals (e.g., southern Whites; Ku Klux Klan members) who strategically engaged in the act (e.g., not clear what the specific purpose was or whether it had structural/institutional ties, but the acts strategically targeted Black voters and Black officeholders).

After all of the data were read, we (the authors) selected and read the photocopied narratives of a set of grade-level textbooks that we did not initially read. As we read, we looked at how the first reader noted acts of violence and/or resistance on the master grade-level sheet. We noted any interpretations that did not correspond to our own reading. In doing this, each set of grade-level textbook data was read by two readers. The third phase focused on us (the authors) sharing our findings with one another to improve interrater continuity. Incongruent and/or inconsistent findings (of which there were very few) were reread and reanalyzed.


We found that in all of the 19 textbooks examined in this study, violence against African Americans, along with resistance from African Americans to such acts of violence, received attention. Given the saliency of these findings, in this section, we present the data across two related categories. The first category illustrates how acts of violence toward African Americans are depicted across the texts, and the second category shows how the textbooks, in general, portray African American resistance to racial violence.


All the textbooks discuss some level of violence inflicted against African Americans, but these acts receive varied treatment across the texts. Whereas fifth-grade textbooks focus almost exclusively on violent acts that occurred during Slavery (including events leading up to and during the Middle Passage) and Reconstruction, in general, most eighth-grade texts limit the discussion of violence primarily to the Reconstruction era. Additionally, 11th-grade texts were often the only ones that discussed the violence that occurred during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights/Black Power eras. Here, limited attention is offered to violence enacted during Slavery and Reconstruction. This pattern of representations of violence is perhaps less related to a lack of willingness on the part of textbook writers to address such concerns, and more to the areas of focus historically tackled by grade-level texts. With respect to the portrayal of violence during the Civil Rights/Black Power period, the textbooks present violent acts concurrently with simultaneous acts of resistance on the part of African Americans. Although we found that 11th- grade textbooks most frequently presented this recursive pattern of violence and resistance, it is also present in a less systematic fashion in the narratives of Slavery and Reconstruction found in the fifth- and eighth-grade texts. Here, the 11th-grade texts present a narrative of violence that includes the act of violence enacted in relation to, or in retaliation for, an act of resistance. For this reason, we present most of the examples of violence enacted against African Americans during the Civil Rights/Black Power era in the section titled, Constructions of Resistance by African Americans Against Racial Violence. An interesting finding was that few textbooks address the violence against African Americans during the PostCivil Rights/Black Power era. When discussed, however, this acknowledgment is given only in the context of the Rodney King incident.

Additionally, depictions and descriptions of physical violence diverge across the texts, with a few offering vivid, rich details of the horrors faced by some African Americans. These passages evoke what one might have seen, heard, and felt during the infliction of the violent act, thus providing the reader with a means to vicariously experience the violence. One such example is found in the fifth-grade History Alive text: The survivors were marked with hot branding irons and loaded on slave ships for the voyage to America (p. 81). In a similarly descriptive fashion, the next exampletaken from an 11th-grade text (History Alive)describes how the KKK inflicted violence on African Americans during Jim Crow:

The Klan conducted swift justice on people they believed deserved punishment. Klansmen, dressed in white sheets with their trademark pointed caps, rode through black neighborhoods at night flogging people and dumping them at garbage sites, yanked and beat romantic couples from cars on lovers lanes, and tarred and feathered whites who supported racial equality. (p. 12)

Other texts, specifically those at the eighth- and eleventh-grade levels, include firsthand accounts of violent acts taken from primary source documents. In the example that follows, a passage taken from an eighth grade-textbook illustrates how the text conveys detailed information about violence using the voice and memory of a person who experienced the act.

The inhuman part of the triangular trade, shipping enslaved Africans to the West Indies, was known as the Middle Passage. Olaudah Equiano, a young African Forced onto a ship to America, later described the voyage: I was soon put down under the decks . . . . The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. . . . The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered [mad] the whole a scene of horror. (bold in original, p. 102; The American Republic to 1877)

Yet aside from the degree of detail or description provided across the various narratives, in general, all the textbooks position acts of violence as strategic, or purposefully inflicted on one or more African Americans. Texts highlight individuals and/or group(s) of individual(s) as the perpetrators of such acts. This is the case in an example taken from the eighth-grade text, The American Nation: Some white southerners formed secret societies to help them regain power. The most dangerous was the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. The Klan worked to keep African Americans and white Republicans out of office (bold in the original, p. 527). Here, the reader is told that a group of White Southerners intent on possessing political power engaged in violent activities specifically targeting African Americans and White Republicans. In another example taken from the 11th-grade text, American Nation in the Modern Era, a specific violent incident that took place during Reconstruction is recounted. Here, the focus is on identifying the events that led to the killing of many African Americans by a group of White rioters:

Race riots were becoming increasingly common in the South. On May 1, 1866, two carriages collided on the streets of Memphis. When police officers arrested the African American driver but not the white one, a group of African American veterans protested. A white mob soon gathered. The resulting conflict led to a three-day spree of violence in which white riotersconsisting mainly of police officers and firefighterskilled 46 African Americans and burned 12 schools and four churches. If anything could reveal . . . the demoniac spirit . . . toward the freedmen, one reporter noted, this violence would. (p. 139)

What stands out in this example is the cause-and-effect relationship that frames the retelling of this narrative. The reader is left to assume that because the police officers arrested the African American driver and not the White driver, a group of Black veterans were outraged and protested. This response then led a group of White individualsincluding city officials such as the police and firefightersto initiate violence on the African American protestors. It is not exactly clear why the White individuals chose to attack the African Americans, as well as their schools and churches, but the quotation used to conclude this passage suggests that it was because the White people were possessed with a demoniac spirit.

Looking closely at both of the cited examples, as well as the previously highlighted examples shared so far, a pattern is denoted. Although the texts do not render these acts of violence as haphazard occurrences, just happening to befall African Americans, they discuss these acts in ways that ignore, undermine, or misrepresent the larger institutional/structural ties that supported (through actions and/or inactions) and, more important, benefited from, their enactment. Here, a reader is told (or left to assume) that in some instances, violence occurred because some White Southerners wished to disenfranchise African Americans of their political power, or because some Whites were demoniac, or because some vague group of people wanted to enslave Africans as part of the nebulous slave trade system. Indeed, one of the key findings in this study was the consistent portrayal of violence against African Americans as deinstitutionalized acts undertaken by bad men or, at best, bad peoplefor example, slaveholders, ship captains, slave drivers, masters, owners, Southerners, the Ku Klux Klan, and Northern workers.

For example, in the fifth-grade Harcourt Horizons textbook, the text states, Slaves were treated well or cruelly depending on their owners (p. 244). Later, the text notes, There was little protection, however, for slaves who had cruel masters (p. 244). In these examples, slavery is relegated to the province of the individual owner or master. Further, from these and other such passages, the experiences faced by enslaved Africans depended wholly on the degree of benevolence or cruelty possessed by individual owners. In this way, textbook narratives do not position slavery as a fully institutionalized system that afforded a foundation of economic stability and wealth that can traced to contemporary institutions and families, but rather as the actions of a few bad (or less bad men).

In saying this, however, we do not mean to suggest that all textbooks unequivocally fail to acknowledge the involvement of national, state, and local officials in the acts of violence targeting African Americans. Indeed, as we will illustrate later, several textbooks do in fact discuss how the involvement of officials (or the lack thereof, which is still a form of involvement) occurred concurrently with acts of violence targeting African Americans. Rather, what we do wish to argue is that such acts, and the seeming benefits accrued because of them, are characterized as limited only to the individuals directly involved in the violence. Thus, the cumulative effect of the violence touches only the lives of the individuals/groups who inflicted the act, and the lives of the individuals/groups who were victims of the act. Acts of violence portrayed in this way situate violence as seemingly disconnected from the very institutions and structures that made it possible for such acts to occur and, perhaps more important, that served to disenfranchise African Americans and helped to fasten in place the existing status quo, socially, economically, culturally, and politically.

For example, lets take a look at a passage taken from the fifth-grade textbook Scott Foresman Social Studies about the violence inflicted on African Americans during Reconstruction:

Some white Southerners also objected to the rights gained by African Americans. After the new state governments repealed black codes, a group of white southerners formed the Ku Klux Klan. The Klans goal was to restore white control over the lives of African Americans. Members of the Klan burned African American schools and homes, and attacked Blacks for trying to vote. (p. 518)

In this passage, readers find that a vague group of White southerners did not want a vague group of African Americans to enjoy the rights afforded to them through the abolishment of slavery (13th Constitutional Amendment), the acknowledgement of due process and equal protection under the law (14th Constitutional Amendment), and the granting of male suffrage (15th Constitutional Amendment). It seems that the passage of the Black Codes (which is spoken of previously in the text) was done to curtail the enactment of these rights. Once the Black Codes were repealed (also spoken of previously in the text) by state governments run by Black and White Republicans, African Americans were seemingly in a position to again exercise their due rights. These same White southerners organized into a group called the KKK, whose purpose was to use violence to maintain control over the actions of African Americans. What this passage highlights is that violence served as a mechanism of control and was employed by any person or group wanting to meet such ends.

This suggests, then, that White Klan violence that targeted African Americans during Reconstruction was enacted with the vague intention of controlling the actions of Blacks and helping to gain back political control from the Republican Party that comprised both Black and White members. What the textbooks leave out of this narrative, however, is a discussion of what constitutes political control. Why did the possession of political control matter? What kinds of things could one engage in by holding political control? Was it the Klan members who wanted control? Or were they acting in the interests of themselves and/or others? Further, why did the Klan members burn down churches and schools? What was the significance of these acts? Was the effect of these acts greater than simply the loss of material buildings that, over time, could be built again?

Though one could raise many other questions about the points raised in the narrative, what seems clear from the questions we pose here is the lack of discussion in the passage about the institutionalized nature of the Klanhow this organization was supported (either outright or through silence) by people who had an economic and political interest in keeping African Americans in a politically, socially, and economically subservient position. Without schools, it would be difficult to educate young people and those formerly enslaved African Americans who had not been allowed to gain literacy skills. Without a church building, the African Americans had lost a vital physical space for meeting and potential organizing, as well as a symbol of progress, hope, and faith in a social system that seemed, under such violent conditions, fully against them.

Reading across the text, we did find instances in which narratives offered more discussion on the use of violence as a means to gain political power and drew a tighter linkage between the two. These examples (with only a few exceptions), however, also failed to highlight the institutional/structural factors that supported the violence, the interests of those who specifically benefited from, but may not have actually engaged in, the acts, and the implications that such acts had for the livelihood of Whites and African Americans who lived in areas where this violence took place.

For instance, the Creating America eighth-grade text offers a more detailed description of, and explanation for, the violence targeting African Americans. Here, lynching is illuminated as one act of violence used to restore Democratic power in the South:

African Americans in the South faced other problems besides poverty. They also faced violent racism. Many planters and former Confederate soldiers did not want African Americans to have more rights. In 1866, such feelings spurred the rise of a secret group called the Ku Klux Klan. The Klans goals were to restore Democratic control of the South and keep former slaves powerless. The Klan attacked African Americans. Often it targeted those who owned land or had become prosperous. Klansmen rode on horseback and dressed in white robes and hoods. They beat people and burned homes. They even lynched some victims, killing them on the spot without a trial as punishment for a supposed crime. The Klan also attacked white Republicans. Klan victims had little protection. Military authorities in the South often ignored the violence. President Johnson had appointed most of these authorities, and they were against Reconstruction. The Klans terrorism served the Democratic Party. As gun-toting Klansmen kept Republicans away from the polls, the Democratic Party increased their power (p. 528)

What stands out about this narrative is the way it ties together Black-targeted violence and racism and  acknowledges that political officials chose not to put an end to violent conditions.4 It is also clear that political and military authorities failed to protect African Americans against Klan violence. However, what is less clear is why such authorities responded in this way. Why were they against Reconstruction? Was it because they felt psychologically defeated by the war and just simply displaced their feelings on recently emancipated African Americans? Was it because they just did not like African American people? Or was it because they viewed African Americans as a threat to the existing economic, political, and social structure?

In another example, taken from the 11th-grade textbook America: Pathways to the Present, the following is stated about the goals of the Klan:

During Radical Reconstruction, the Klan sought to eliminate the Republican Party in the South by intimidating Republican voters, both white and black. The Klans long-term goal was to keep African Americans in the role of submissive laborers. The Klans terror tactics varied from place to place. (p. 219)

Here, the reader is told in a more pointed fashion that the intended long-term goal of the Klans (i.e., bad people) violence toward African Americans was to subjugate this group into a submissive laborer role.

Although these narratives go beyond many of the examples found across the texts, they too fall short of clearly identifying the institutional nature and effects of violence in this context. When reading this text, both teachers and students are left to fill in the gaps left by the text regarding to the structural nature of violence and the initial desired and cumulative effects (e.g., economic, social, political, cultural) of acts such as lynching and the burning of schools and churches. Teachers and students are also left to ponder unanswered questions such as: Why did the Klan members target African Americans who owned land or had become prosperous? Was it out of jealousy? Was it because the Klan wanted to live a segregated life that did not include living around people they considered inferior? Was it because the White Klan members wanted the land that African Americans owned? If so, why would the White Klan members want land? Why was land so important? Why did the Klan members want African Americans to remain powerless? Further, what is meant by the term power? Does it refer to the capacity to exert physical force? Or does it refer to possessing the capacity to influence conditions in a manner that benefits and impacts oneself and others? How, then, is power gained and used? To what ends does it serve?


Across all the textbooks examined, we found narratives of African Americans exerting resistance against racial violence. Such acts, however, received differing treatment across the time periods covered in the texts. For instance, slavery (particularly in the fifth- and eighth-grade textbooks) and the Civil Rights/Black Power eras (in the 11th-grade textbooks) were the primary sites for discussing African American resistance. Discussions of African American resistance during Reconstruction were virtually nonexistent across all grade levels, and in the case of the Jim Crow era, such acts were relegated generally to the work of antilynching coalitions led by Ida B. Wells, an African American journalist.5

In general, characterizations of resistance are situated in relation to a historic event or a historic person who led and/or organized some resistant act. Textbooks for all grade levels cite the Amistad Rebellion, and eighth-grade and 11th-grade texts note the Stono Rebellion. Notable figures such as Cinque (from the Amistad Rebellion), Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner receive varied treatment across all the reviewed texts. For example, in the fifth-grade Our Nation text, the reader encounters the following description of the rebellion led by Nat Turner:

The number of slave rebellions also grew. One of the most serious took place on August 21, 1831. Nat Turner led a small band of enslaved people in Southhampton County, Virginia. For two days, they went from farm to farm and killed nearly 60 men, women, and children from slave-holding families. Turner hid in the woods for six weeks before he was caught. All the rebels were hanged. After Turners rebellion, many slave owners feared for their lives. As one planter said, I have not slept without [worry] in three months. Terrified whites in the South killed more than 100 innocent enslaved and free blacks in 1831. Some states passed laws forbidding African Americans from gathering in public places and holding religious services. (p. 412)

In this passage, readers find that enslaved Africans fought back against the conditions of slavery. This resistance could be violent in nature and, as noted here, served the purpose of inciting fear among Whites in the South. What stands out in this example is how the passage purposefully presents the Nat Turner incident in a cause-and-effect relationship. The reader is told that because of the violence inflicted on Whites during the slave insurrection, Whites became afraid. This fear led to the killing of many enslaved Africans and to the passage of legislation that made it illegal for these individuals to gather and meet.

In the next example, taken from the fifth-grade Scott Foresman Social Studies textbook, the reader learns that although some acts of resistance by enslaved Africans were unsuccessful, others led to the intended outcome of freedom. Here the text begins by describing the events leading up to and following the rebellion led by Nat Turner. This discussion is followed by a description of the Amistad incident:

A later rebellion had a different ending. In 1839, a group of 53 captive Africans seized control of the Amistad a Spanish slave ship carrying them from one port to another in Cuba. The Africans were led by a farmer from West Africa who became known as Joseph Cinque. He told the Africans: We may as well die in trying to be free. (p. 472)

Resistance to slavery by enslaved Africans did not only take the form of violent insurrections. Across all the texts examined, there was some reference to acts of resistance that were more subtle and enacted in day-to-day plantation life. The acts refer to work stoppages, the breaking of tools, and, according to the eighth-grade History Alive text, even pretend[ing] to be dumb, clumsy, sick or insane to escape work (p. 265). An example of this is found in the eleventh-grade text The Americans, which discusses several nonviolent ways that enslaved Africans resisted the violence of slavery. Slaves also resisted their position of subservience. Throughout the colonies, planters reported slaves faking illness, breaking tools, and staging work slowdowns. A number of slaves tried to run away, even though escape attempts brought severe punishment (p. 33).

In a similar manner, nonviolence as a strategy of resistance was extensively discussed in sections of the textbooks on the Civil Rights/ Black Power Era. However, our findings illustrate that the bulk of these narratives of resistance were presented across 11th-grade textbooks. What stands out in these narratives is the recursive manner in which resistance is discussed in relation to acts of racial violence. In this context, and similar to how resistance is discussed in relation to slavery, textbooks repeatedly highlight the actions of various civil rights leaders and organizations that employed nonviolence as a strategy of resistance, in spite of the occurrence (or threat) of violence. The following passage, taken from the 11th-grade textbook America: Pathways to the Present, illustrates this point:

The riders escaped before the bus burst into flames, but many were beaten by the mob as they stumbled out of the vehicle, choking on the smoke. They had anticipated trouble, since they meant to provoke a confrontation. The level of violence, however, took them by surprise. As a result of the savage response, Farmer considered calling off the project. SNCC leaders, though, begged to go on. Farmer warned, You know that may be suicide. Student activist Diane Nash replied, If we let them stop us with violence, the movement is dead! . . . . Your troops have been badly battered. Let us pick up the baton and run with it. (pp. 711712)

This example is indicative of how 11th-grade textbooks generally characterized nonviolent resistance. Whole sections dedicated to the civil rights movement descriptively highlighted how leaders and activists employed the strategy of nonviolence in the midst of aggressive acts of violence used to thwart the efforts of the civil rights movement. Some textbooks took the narrative of resistance a bit further by highlighting that nonviolence was often calculated and used to incite local and state officials to use violence. The following passage from American Nation illustrates how civil rights leaders purposely employed this strategy:

After the events in Albany, SCLC focused its attention on Birmingham. Protesting in Birmingham meant danger and possibly even death. Ralph Abernathy later explained the civil rights activists strategy. As for [police chief] Bull Connor and City of Birmingham, it was true that they constituted the hardest and most mean-spirited establishment in the South. Yet if we beat them on their own home grounds, we might be able to prove to the entire region that it was useless to resist desegregation, that its time had finally come. To win in Birmingham might well be to win in the rest of the nation. So in the long run the gamble [of confronting violence in Birmingham] might actually save time and lives in our struggle for equality. Ralph Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. (p. 653)

Similar to the depictions of resistance during Slavery in the textbooks, the 11th- grade texts present resistance during the Civil Rights/Black Power era as strategic. However, resistance during this time was also characterized as highly organized, as opposed to depictions during Slavery, which positioned these acts as less formally organized and sometimes random in nature. It appears that during the Civil Rights era, resistance was used as a means for achieving social justice.

Although these constructions of resistance offer a strong illustration of the concomitant relationship between resistance and racial violence (Aptheker, 1969; Kelley, 1993; Shapiro, 1988), they also situate instigators of violence in particular ways. Here, textbooks often targeted a few key players as the consummate protagonists of violence, acting in an autonomous fashion and disconnected from larger social, political, and economic interests in the region. One of the main characters in the civil rights narrative was Eugene Bull Connor. He is portrayed as a lone crazed and racist man fully committed to crushing African American activists. The following passage from the textbook The American Republic Since 1877 illustrates this point:

The head of the police in Birmingham, Public Safety Commissioner Theophilus Eugene (Bull) Connor, explained that there had been no police at the bus station because it was Mothers Day and he had given many of his officers the day off. FBI evidence later showed that Connor had contacted the local Ku Klux Klan and told them he wanted the Freedom Riders beaten until it looked like a bulldog got a hold of them. The violence in Alabama made national news, shocking many Americans. The attack on Freedom Riders came less than four months after President John F. Kennedy took office. The new president felt compelled to do something to get the violence under control. (p. 755)

This passage illustrates the contrast made between the bad Bull Connor, the shocked unknowing Americans, and the benevolent and caring President Kennedy. This relationship is commonly narrated across the 11th-grade textbooks and conveys to the reader that racial violence and resistance to that violence were limited only to the actors involved. Here, violence is read as a deviation from true American democratic idealsthose presumably held by the shocked Americans and the president.

Finally, with regard to the portrayal of resistance against violence during the era of Black Power, all the 11th-grade textbooks juxtapose this response with the nonviolent approach adopted by the civil rights movement. To do this, textbooks often highlight the growing frustrations that African Americans had with Southern racism and the racial discrimination and police brutality experienced in some northern, midwestern, and western U.S. cities.

According to the textbooks, African Americans working in the civil rights movement also became frustrated with the increasing levels of racial violence and the concomitant lack of social change taking place in the United States. Some of these individuals began looking at the political discourse of the burgeoning Black Power. One such example is Stokely Carmichael, who is cited in the 11th-grade textbook America: Pathways to the Present as a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The following text discusses how he became frustrated with the approach and direction of the civil rights movement and, along with SNCC, took an increasingly radical approach to social change:

As Carmichael rose to SNCC leadership, the group became more radical. After being beaten and jailed for his participation in demonstrations, he was tired of nonviolent protest. He called on SNCC workers to carry guns for self-defense. He wanted to make the group exclusively black, rejecting white activists. . . . Carmichael, just out of jail, jumped into the back of an open truck to challenge the moderate leaders: This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested, and I aint going to jail no more! . . . . The only way we gonna stop them white men from whippin us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six yearsand we aint got nothin. What we gonna start saying now is black power!Stokely Carmichael, public address, June 1966. (p. 724)

Across the 11th-grade texts, Carmichael is highlighted as a vocal advocate for the changing terrain of Black political discourse during the late 1960s. Carmichaels call for radical change in the civil rights movement is often presented in parallel with discussions about the Black Panther Party (BPP). Across the texts, however, notably less attention is given to the BPP than to the civil rights movement. Most notably, the textbooks point to the violent tensions between the BPP and state and local officials. American Nation illustrates this point:

The platform also called for the creation of black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our black community from racist police oppression. Black Panther members often appeared in public carrying firearmsat the time a legal activity in California. They participated in a number of highly publicized gun battles with police. (p. 664)


Although this text clearly provides a broader ideological perspective about 1960s Black political struggles, the way the narrative is rendered can be misleading. Though the BPP had several gunfights with local police, scholars have documented how local and federal authorities used violence with the sole purpose of repressing the political efforts of the BPP members (Churchill, 1988). Very little mention is made about the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBIs) COINTELPRO program, which used various (often violent) repressive tactics to dismantle the organization. Many members were killed as a result of the COINTELPRO program, including one of the most popularly known members, Fred Hampton. Thus, by suggesting that the BPP and police officers were in a gun battle without providing the historical context needed to understand why such conflicts may have occurred, students and teachers receive misrepresented depictions of violence directed toward radical Black political organizations.


Findings from this study illuminate that knowledge about racial violence toward African Americans is present, in some form, at all levels across the K12 social studies textbooks. Given the long history that U.S. social studies textbooks have played in presenting marginalized knowledge about African Americans (Allen, 1971; Alridge, 2006; Banks, 1969; King, 1992; Swartz, 1992; Woodson, 1933/2000; Wynter, 1992), some may perceive this finding as racial progress. We suggest, however, that although this finding points to the important gains made due to the tireless critiques of multicultural scholars and curriculum theorists, there is still much work to accomplish.

At one level, although contemporary textbooks include the stories told about racial violence targeting African Americans and their responses to this violence, certain patterns emerge in these narratives. Racial violence is acknowledged across all the main time periods of African American history, including Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights/Black Power era. Resistance to violence, however, is often relegated to Slavery and the Civil Rights/Black Power erawith the exception of brief mention of the efforts of antilynching leagues during Jim Crow. This pattern, then, gives the impression that African Americans sat back and willingly accepted the violence (and the threat of violence) as a condition of their existence. Historian Herbert Shapiro (1988) presented evidence that challenges this notion, pointing to the armed resistance that African Americans in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, took against Whites in 1921. Additionally, sporadic attention is paid to the more commonly recognized narratives of racial violence within the public discourse, including the brutal murder of Emmett Till and the Alabama bombings that killed four African American girls. Yet even more surprising is that the textbooks give little attention to racial violence and resistance in the PostCivil Rights/Black Power era. Only some of the 11th-grade texts address these events, few mention the Rodney King incident, and no reference is made to the Move Philadelphia bombing, Atlanta child murders, the Bensonhurst and Howard Beach beatings, the Bernard Goetz killings, the dragging and lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, and the murder of Amadou Diallo.

In spite of these gaps, perhaps the most insidious finding in this study concerns the overwhelming portrayal of acts of violence against African Americans in ways that render these events as the acts of autonomous immoral agents rather than systematic acts that had direct and long-term effects. Acts of racial violence, such as the physical brutality of slavery, the unrelenting torture and lynching of thousands of African Americans from the late 1800s to the first half of the 20th century, and the strong physical resistance leveled against African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, were presented as strategic in nature and enacted by actors who were immoral (e.g., KKK, those against the Republican Party) or overzealous and crazed (e.g., Eugene Bull Connor). These strategic acts, however, were also simultaneously presented in ways that stripped them of their institutional ties, leaving students and teachers responsible for making these vital connections.

For example, when considering how the textbooks depicted acts of violence that occurred during the Middle Passage and Slavery, one finds that slavery was a system that involved individual actors who possessed a desire to maintain control over the enslaved Africans immediately under their control. These narratives, however, do not illustrate the systematic, institutional basis of this violence, nor do they allude to the long-term effects of such violence on maintaining a system that provided the socioeconomic and political infrastructure of the United States (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995) and the financial wealth and stability of some families and corporations (e.g., Fleet Bank, Aetna Insurance Company) that continue to reap social and economic benefits of these past events (Biondi, 2003; Martin & Yaquinto, 2004).6

When considering how acts of violence targeting African Americans were characterized during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era, a similar pattern existed. And, even in those instances in which the texts did note that local, state, and/or federal officials turned a blind eye to such events, it was not made clear for the reader that these acts could not have occurred without the expressed support (either overtly or covertly) of sociopolitical institutions that ultimately benefited from this violence. In this manner, acts of violence went beyond simply the actors who engaged in the actual act by simultaneously providing a social environment that deprived African Americans of their political rights and economic livelihoods in the communities where they lived. The effects of this disenfranchisement went beyond a loss of votes, the ushering in of a new political party, or simply the racial segregation of society. What it meant was that most (but not alle.g., see Note 5 on the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma) African Americans were unable to collectively, on a national scale, access the vital elements needed to create and sustain a thriving sociopolitical and economic subcommunity in the United States.7

Yet simultaneously, Whites who engaged in violent acts against African Americans, as well as those who quietly ignored these actions, all benefited (whether materially or symbolicallyfor example, White skin privilege) from these acts of violence. For example, what happened to the land that was taken from African Americans or left behind when they fled the South in response to intimidations of violence? What happened when school buildings and churches built by African Americans were destroyed? In recent years, several prominent attorneys have pushed state and federal governments to repay African Americans who lost property because of violent and racist conditions during the 20th century in the South (Ogletree, n.d.; Tulsa Reparations Coalition, n.d.).

Thus, we suggest that the textbooks generally depicted acts of violence against African Americans as aberrational, or temporary exceptions, in the narrative of American democracy. Here, violence becomes a moment of darkness in which specific people (e.g., ship captains, slave owners, KKK members, Northern workers, Southern officials) living in specific spatial contexts (e.g., the South, the North) acted in ways that were abnormal and inconsistent with the American ideals of democracy. Yet what gets left out of the narrative is how the creation of U.S. democracy (and capitalism) occurred simultaneously with the violence used to repress and cause fear in African Americans and lock in place an institutionalized system of political, economic, and social inequality. Also left out is the recognition that out of these actions, a system of White privilege was nurtured and sustained.

In accounting for why contemporary textbooks fail to address issues of race in ways that position it as a fully structural and institutional factor in the history of the United States, we recognize that a confluence of factors plays a role. The first is a point that numerous scholars of curriculum have noted: School knowledge is political (Apple, 1993; Banks 1993; Buras, 2008; Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995). This body of work has illustrated that school curriculum debates become entrenched within the interests of several political entities and ideological perspectives that disagree on how school texts should render U.S. history. Scholars (Cornbleth & Waugh) suggest that these cultural wars have led official texts (Giroux, 1997, Ladson-Billings, 2003b) to present historical narratives in line with a traditional, uncontroversial form of consensus history (Hoffer, 2004).8 These practices inevitably impact the way that race gets depicted and represented in mainstream textbooks. Given the controversial nature of race as it is situated within the context of American history, racial violence as a topic of inquiry in U.S. social studies textbooks stands as a counternarrative and a challenge to the typical narrative of U.S. history.  

Although we agree with this explanation, there are other factors that inform how African American racial violence is presented in the official school text. For example, there is a general discontinuity between how scholarly discourse conceptualizes African American history and its depiction in official school texts (e.g., see Hess, 2005). There is a time lag between how history is reconceptualized in the scholarly discourse and how it eventually trickles into K12 educational discourse. For example, during much of the 20th century, scholars rarely recognized how African Americans resisted during the Middle Passage and Slavery. By the 1960s, a significant body of slave historical scholarship emerged that illustrated the way African Americans revolted and resisted (Aptheker, 1969; Genovese, 1980; Stampp, 1965). Over time, these changing narratives of slave resistancealthough sometimes narrowly renderedeventually became part of traditional school knowledge. Thus, while school texts generally present a truncated version of the history of race and racism in the United States, we might understand this gap as related to the growing attention paid by social scientists to race as a systematic feature of U.S. history. For the last couple of decades, historians (Dray, 2003; Kelley, 1993; Shapiro, 1988; Tyson, 1998), sociologists (Fitzhugh-Brundage, 1997; Tolnay & Beck, 1995), political scientists (Davenport, 2005, 2007), and literary scholars (Goldsby, 2006) have addressed the material and structural implications of racial violence in the United States, including how African Americans resisted racial violence throughout most of the 20th century. Over time, it is our hope that this body of scholarship will impact the construction of sociocultural and historical knowledge found in official school texts.

The findings of this study have several implications. First, if the historical narratives of racial violence in the United States are understood only as a few fleeting moments in which immoral, crazed, or even racist individual actors behaved in a manner unbecoming of American democratic norms, students fail to understand the manner in which racist acts were institutionally supported and how they accrued benefits to those Whites who both engaged in and ignored the acts. Second, the presentation of such narratives in textbook curricula help to sustain the ideological belief that racism, whether overt or insidious, only existed (or continues to exist) because of the actions of a few unscrupulous individuals rather than as acts embedded within larger institutional and structural systems. These acts, unfortunately, do not go away with history. Rather, their effectsmaterially, symbolically, and discursivelyimpact contemporary life. Thus, we contend that the manner in which the history of racial violence against African Americans is rendered and acknowledged within the official curriculum fails to construct a cultural memory of institutionalized inequality and racism. Such a memory is vitally needed in the work of education policy makers, educators, and teacher educatorsparticularly those who prepare teachers who will teach social studies. We further argue that schools and teachers must draw from students interpretations of these histories (see Epstein, 1998, 2009) because they inform their sociocultural knowledge about race and racism.

These findings highlight the limitations associated with trying to simply make the school curriculum more inclusive for historically underrepresented communities. Although well intentioned, such goals often fall short of the intended aim of transforming curricular knowledge (King, 2004). Throughout the late 20th century, multicultural education scholars fought difficult battles to change incomplete, and often inaccurate, historical knowledge (Ladson-Billings, 2003a). Though these efforts ushered in some improvement by making K12 social studies textbooks more inclusive regarding the knowledge presented, they have not changed the structural ways that racial violence is discussed and framed in the history of African Americans in the United States.

These findings also have implications for developing preservice teachers who will eventually provide such historical knowledge to their students. One of the most difficult challenges faced by teacher educators is helping preservice teacher candidates understand the historical and institutional nature of race (along with other social constructs) in schools and society (Gay, 2002; Milner, 2003; Tyson, 2003). Students enter teacher preparation programs armed with, and likely to draw from, experiences (Lortie, 1975) and knowledge (e.g., historical and sociocultural) gained in their K12 schooling. These individuals will draw from this knowledge and eventually have the responsibility of providing it to their students. We suggest that the deinstitutionalized historical narratives of racial violence that teachers receive in their K12 social studies education have direct implications for how they approach their teacher education coursework, how they understand and interpret racial violence and racism, and how they will eventually teach these subjects in their classrooms.

With regard to preservice teachers perspectives on race, existing literature points to the unexamined and often privileged social locations from which many reside (e.g., White, middle class) as the cause of their seeming resistance to recognize the power of race. Indeed, it is not uncommon for scholars to point to such knowledge as the most difficult to shift when trying to prepare teachers to embrace a commitment to social justice teaching (Cochran-Smith, 2004; Howard, 1999; King, 1991; McIntyre, 1997; Sleeter, 2001, 2008). Though we do not disagree with these perspectives, we contend that the situation is likely more complex than this particular rendering of the problem. We argue that what these students may lack, in addition to sitting in a privileged social location, is both an understanding of the cultural memory of race in the history of the United States and an understanding of how this history continues to manifest in the present (Ladson-Billings, 1991). Thus, we argue that most students come to teacher education programs lacking historical knowledge and the conceptual tools needed to make sense of the elusive, complex, and institutionalized nature of race inequality. Although some may have varying degrees of personal/experiential knowledge about the role of race in U.S. history and societyparticularly if they are of colorthey, along with their White counterparts, will likely have fragmented historical knowledge about the powerful role of race.

Finally, we assert that the way textbooks portray racial violence has significant implications for how social studies and historical discourse are taught in schools. We offer that social studies knowledge must reexamine the nexus between racial violence and democracy. Several social scientists have already noted that violence and state repression are inextricably tied to the tensions, internal struggles, and contradictions of being a citizen within a democratic nation (Davenport, 2005, 2007; Tolnay & Beck, 1995). In other words, racial violence is embedded in group and individual interests while concomitantly tied to local, state, and federal actors collective material and political interests. This seeming symbiotic relationship between racial violence and democracy relates to what Goldsby (2006) referred to as a cultural logic of American life. This cultural logic, according to Goldsby, demarcates the vital, necessary role that racial violence has played in framing the history of the United States. If this is the case, we propose that paying closer attention to these relationships in the K12 curriculum will help to alter the perception that racial violence isas we stated earliersimply bad men doing bad things.   

All this leads us back to the question implied in this article: Is it that teachers wont teach about racial violence, or is that they cant teach about racial violence to its fullest extent because theyin concert with the official curriculumlack the cultural memory to do so? In this article, we have approached this question from the standpoint of whether the officially sanctioned historical discourse in school textbooks addresses the history of racial violence against African Americans in the United States. We have also considered the implications of these histories in how we talk about and enact race in a contemporary schooling context. We further note that although this analysis illustrates the problematic way that textbooks portray racial violence, some revisionist historians, school districts, and communities have challenged the way African American history is presented in school texts.9 Additionally, we contend that further research should explore how teachers in traditional schools and nonschool settings pedagogically address how issues of race and racism are constructed within school curriculum.

It is our hope that the findings of this study and further research will challenge us all to reconsider what we think we know about the history of racial violence in the United States, for we acknowledge that in forgetting about this spectacular secret (Goldsby, 2006), we only distance ourselves even further from realizing a true, socially just U.S. democracy.


1. In this article, we use the term African American and sometimes the term Black to refer to people of African descent who live in the United States. Please note that we also choose to capitalize the term Black, and the term White when we use it to refer to people of European descent who live in the United States.

2. It is not surprising, then, that one of the earliest critiques leveled against portrayals of African American history in the United States focused on the lack of attention paid to resistance by Blacks during intense periods of violencefor example, the Middle Passage and Slavery (Stampp, 1965). Narratives of the happy slave abound in historical accounts and social studies textbooks, paying little attention to the daily acts of resistance engaged in by enslaved African Americans. Thus, in this study, we wanted to examine not only how acts of violence against African Americans were rendered in K12 textbooks but also how this community of people resisted these conditions.

3. The official list of Texas-adopted U.S. history social studies textbooks included 24 titles; this study examined only those textbooks (19) that were available on site at the official state office were we retrieved data.

4. Scholars have noted previously that textbooks often diminish or ignore the links between race and powernotions that are embedded in the use of the term racism (King, 1992; Swartz, 1992).

5. Two notable exceptions to this deserve attention. The first is found in one of the texts that situate Marcus Garveys Pan-Africanist movement as a response to racial violence against African Americans. The second is the Greenwood Incident, which took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31 and June 1, 1921. The 11th-grade text American Nation states,

In June 1921 at least 30 people died during a race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One resident described attacks on the African American section of town, People were seen to flee from their burning homes, some with babes in their arms. The violence prompted African American soldier with World War I combat experience to attempt to defend their communities. The colored troops fought nobly, wrote one African American to a friend in Washington, D.C. after the riots in that city. We have something to fight for now. (pp. 403404)

In this passage, the text makes reference to the race riots that took place in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although not addressed in the text, portions of Greenwood housed prosperous African American commercial interests that were destroyed during the 1921 attacks. Historian Herbert Shapiro (1988) stated that it is distinctly improbable that the assault upon the black community [in Greenwood] could have been mounted without the approval of police and other authorities (pp. 183184).

6. In recent years, scholars have uncovered ties between the system of slavery and existing U.S. companies that knowingly benefited from this institution (e.g., see Biondi, 2003; Martin & Yaquinto, 2004).

7. When saying this, we do not mean to suggest that African Americans were not able to build strong communities throughout the South and in other parts of the U.S. Indeed, scholars have noted that in spite of discrimination, racial violence, and threats of racial violence, many African Americans were able to pursue education, create businesses, and cultivate strong communal relations (Anderson, 1988; Walker, 1996). However, even in some of these communities, like the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, African Americans were still vulnerable to attack by the larger White community.

8. Hoffer (2004) recognizes consensus history as a skewed historical narrative that places predominant historical representation on European Americans and positions all other populations in the United States as living harmoniously under the rule of Whites.

9. There have been some efforts by revisionist historians such as Eric Foner, Howard Zinn, and Manning Marable to change how African American history is presented in schools. For example, Manning Marable and the Columbia University Center for Contemporary Black History (CCBH) was recently awarded $91,219 from the Ford Foundation to develop a prototype Web-based multimedia program called the Amistad Digital Resource for Teachers. In addition, the School District of Philadelphia has recently mandated for all students to take a comprehensive Black history course before receiving their high school diploma.


We would like to thank the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies for their financial support for this research.  We also want to thank Jennifer Lawton for her assistance in locating and organizing the data used for this study, as well as Jaelyn Hamilton for her help in editing the final document. We express our gratitude to Lyn Corno and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful critique and suggestions on the final draft of the manuscript, as well as, to those who read and offered us feedback on previous drafts of this manuscript, including: Herman Brown, Christian Davenport, William Hamilton, Timothy Lensmire, Deborah Palmer, Allison Skerrett, Cynthia Tyson and Luis Urietta, Jr.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 1, 2010, p. 31-67
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15592, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 5:27:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Anthony Brown
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    ANTHONY L. BROWN is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and affiliated faculty at the John Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and Cultural Studies in Education (CSE) at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a former classroom teacher and school administrator whose scholarly interests focus on the educational experiences of African American males as well as how African American history is constructed in K12 social studies curricula and within the larger societal discourses. Anthonys work has recently been published in the Handbook of Research on Teacher Education: Enduring Issues in Changing Contexts and the American Behavioral Scientist.
  • Keffrelyn Brown
    University of Texas at Austin
    KEFFRELYN D. BROWN is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and affiliated faculty at the John Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a former classroom teacher, school administrator, and curriculum developer/consultant whose research interests focus on understanding how preservice teachers and in-service teachers understand and draw from sociocultural knowledge. She is also interested in the knowledge constructed about and the educational experiences of African American students. Her recent work has been published in the Sage Handbook of Curriculum and Instruction, Educational Researcher, and the Journal of Research on Science Teaching.
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