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Liberals worried about textbook objections forget about Sambo and the KKK | Opinion

We should applaud rather than resist public scrutiny of textbooks, which has been a force for social justice and equality in key moments in our past.

An original edition of “The Story of Little Black Sambo” on display at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey.
An original edition of “The Story of Little Black Sambo” on display at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey.Read moreMark C Psoras

Hey, check out those yahoos in Florida! They're censoring textbooks!

My fellow progressives have worked themselves into a good liberal lather over a new law in Florida that allows citizens to object to books assigned in the public schools. Promoted by conservative activists, who accused textbooks of fostering left-wing propaganda, the measure lets anyone in the state raise concerns about teaching materials and entitles those who object to a public hearing of their complaints.

Liberals immediately raised the specter of censorship, worrying that schools would purge information about sex, evolution, and climate change. But we should applaud rather than resist the popular scrutiny of textbooks, which has been a force for social justice and equality in other key moments in our past.

If you think otherwise, I've got three words for you: Little Black Sambo.

Remember Sambo? He was the jolly, ostensibly "Indian" figure who dotted the pages of elementary school readers and spellers for much of American history. But he was really a slave, and a happy one at that. "Sambo" was racist shorthand for a docile and childlike African American who cheerily accepted his subjugation to the white master.

He's gone from our textbooks, thankfully. And the reason is — you guessed it — citizen pressure on the schools. Starting in the 1940s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other African American organizations issued a steady drumbeat of protest against Little Black Sambo and other types of racism in textbooks.

History books valorized the Ku Klux Klan. Music books featured the original lyrics of Stephen Foster songs, including the n-word and "darky." Geography books described Africa as a dark continent of barbarity and superstition.

And in New York City, home to millions of Jews and African Americans, schools taught an anti-Semitic and racist play called The King's English. It told the story of a boat shipwrecked on an island where a black cannibal — "Kawa Koo" — threatens to eat all 20 of the survivors.

Eventually, Kawa agrees to let a single passenger survive. The boat's white captain, Ripley O'Rannigan, decides to select the person who speaks the best English. That draws gripes from the boat's lone Jewish passenger, Perlheimer, who "talks with both hands" as he denounces Ripley.

"Inklish? Vat for I speak Inklish?" Perlheimer asks. "I read Yiddische papers. I talk Yiddish mit mein friends." Ripley cuts him off. "You may have him, Kawa!" he tells the cannibal. "America doesn't want him. He's indigestible."

Black and Jewish protests led the New York schools to drop The King's English in the early 1950s. Little Black Sambo held on a bit longer, but he mostly disappeared from our textbooks by the late 1960s.

Does that mean racism has been purged from school materials? Of course not. Just two years ago, a Texas citizen discovered that her son's history textbook described slaves as "workers" who came from Africa to America "to work on agricultural plantations."

She objected, of course, and the publisher agreed to revise the offending passage. And that provided an object lesson in American democracy, which is always enhanced by citizen participation.

That doesn't mean every objection is valid, of course. Supporters of the new Florida law took aim at biology books describing evolution and human-made climate change, although both concepts are embraced by almost every informed scientist. Others condemned history textbooks that allegedly praised government services at the expense of individual initiative and self-reliance.

But the answer to this challenge isn't to cut off citizen challenges, which would also prevent complaints of the sort that the Texas mom made. Nor should we squawk about censorship, which is the ultimate red herring in these debates. I'm glad Little Black Sambo and The King's English were "censored," if by that term we mean their removal from the official curriculum. Aren't you?

Instead, we liberals should use this occasion to call for more public engagement — not less — in school affairs. The Florida measure specifies that school boards must conduct an "open public hearing" about every citizen complaint before an "unbiased and qualified hearing officer."

There's our opening. When conservatives move to eliminate material about climate change or evolution, we need to flood these hearings to defend it. We've got knowledge on our side, just as we did in the case of Little Black Sambo. Depictions of slavery as a benign institution weren't simply racist or offensive, although they were surely that. They were false.

Condemning the new Florida measure, one Democratic state legislator warned it could "let anybody come in and complain about … the history of slavery, or the fact that maybe we shouldn't have evolution in our textbooks." He was right, but it would be wrong to prevent that.

If you don't like what the schools are teaching, raise your voice. In America, that's the only way we get closer to the truth.

Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author (with Emily Robertson) of  The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (University of Chicago Press, 2017).