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How Could They Say That? The Problem of Offensive Content

The first-hand evidence of history is not always pretty. Scattered among the 15,000 pages of American Journeys are many that may make your students or their parents uncomfortable. Be prepared to encounter such moments and to use them to help students understand their own beliefs and values, as well as to learn how complex history is if they look beneath the usual textbook simplifications. Here are some examples of objectionable content and how you might respond.

Racism. When Africans and African-Americans appear in these early texts, white authors usually reflect the prejudices and misconceptions prevalent at the time. Your students may come across objectionable comments, remarks, or descriptions, for example, when reading about the sixteenth-century African member of the Narvaez expedition, Estebanico, or about the only black member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, York. Far more widespread in this body of literature are racist stereotypes of Native Americans, particularly in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century documents.

To help your students grapple with these passages, ask them to consider a few questions: Where the information came from? Who wrote down the offending words? What values and motives those authors may have had? Why they did not share our modern values? How people of color might have described the same events differently? Why only the white version of history survived in print? What the proper stance of a modern reader or historian ought to be toward them?

Vocabulary. These pages are liberally laced with terminology that has acquired objectionable connotations over the centuries. By far the most common example is the word “savages” used in places where we today would say “Native Americans.” This usage derives from an early (and bad) English translation of the French word “sauvage” which meant uncivilized-“without religion, laws, or fixed habitation”-rather than violent, brutal, or cruel. Other offensive terms that your students will encounter include “squaw” for Indian woman and a wide variety of archaic tribal names, such as “Winnebago” for the modern “Ho-Chunk.” Many find these terms just as offensive as white readers would if they discovered their ancestors constantly referred to here as “rednecks” and “honkies.” To help them in this situation, encourage your students to interrogate the text: Who wrote down the offending words? What values and motives did those authors have? Why didn’t they share our modern values? Where did our own values come from?

Sex. Although graphic details are usually not given, there are many accounts in American Journeys describing sexual habits and practices because these were differences that stood out dramatically when cultures made contact. Early authors frequently commented on how differently another community dealt with pre-marital relations, marriage, divorce, and adultery. There are occasional discussions of homosexuality or cross-dressing, and even some legal proceedings dealing with bestiality. Given the normal prurient interests of many adolescents, you may discover certain pages printed out and passed around your classroom for entertainment value rather than for serious research purposes. Because every teacher, parent, school, and community has different standards and ways of dealing with such situations, we simply call your attention to this possibility without offering advice on how teachers should deal with them.

Slavery. Given the geographical scope of the documents, African slavery is touched upon only slightly in American Journeys, though the blasé way in which it is treated may appall some students. Far more common are descriptions of the enslavement of American Indians by Europeans, starting with Columbus and continuing for centuries, and the kidnapping and enslavement of children by American Indians. Graphic descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves or of the separation of parents and children could upset some students, who may find it easier to identify with the young victim rather than with the adult narrator. It may be useful to point out that at the time many of these documents were written, slavery was a common practice in societies all over the world, and then to encourage your students to ask what made that possible. What beliefs, desires, motives, and standards of value had to be embraced by a person to act as the text describes? Why do we ourselves have different beliefs and values today?

Violence. Nauseating descriptions of outrageous violence are liberally scattered through the pages of American Journeys. European cruelty to American Indians was common from the very beginning of cultural contact, and it is often narrated with a moral blindness that is scarcely comprehensible today. Similarly, Indian torture of prisoners, sometimes including innocent children, is occasionally depicted in gruesome detail. To help students deal with such passages, it is important to remind them that during these centuries no culture had a monopoly on savagery. The Spanish butchered American Indians, the Indians burned the French, the English set villages of non-combatants on fire, Americans gunned down unarmed Indian Christians, Catholics tortured Protestants, Protestants slaughtered Catholics, and back home in Europe, they all burned the women they thought were witches. Violence was commonplace, and it may be useful for your students to inquire why that is no longer so. Why do we no longer believe it’s appropriate to treat others in the ways described in these texts? It may also be useful for them to ask, under what conditions is violence still acceptable to them: Why might they believe it was morally wrong to fly an airplane into a skyscraper but not to drop an atomic bomb on Japanese civilians (or to eat a hamburger)?

Sexism. Some students may be offended by passages describing women as sexual commodities, showing Indian women reduced to brute laborers, or depicting women in other demeaning roles. Some students may be concerned that there are very few accounts written by women in American Journeys. In all such cases, it will be useful to encourage them to interrogate the text: since most of the male authors also had wives or partners who occasionally appear in these documents, why were the surviving words almost all written by the men? What forces governed who could write, edit, and publish narratives of exploration?

In all these examples, the most useful response will be to validate the student’s outrage and then to turn their intellect back on the text through questions such as those above. Instead of suppressing or avoiding these offensive passages, exploit them as uniquely powerful occasions for the student to use his or her critical thinking skills.

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