by Fathi Qarshie
Roni Dean-Burren the mother of the 15 year old boy who pointed out, in his geography textbook, words that distort the grave history of the Atlantic slave trade, ignited outrage on social media, eventually forcing, McGraw, the nation’s largest textbook publisher to apologize. At the center of controversy was the use of the word ‘workers’ rather than slaves to narrate the odyssey of the Africans’ forcefully brought to the New World to labor in plantation camps.
“We are deeply sorry that the caption was written this way,” said McGraw-Hill Education CEO, David Levin. But was it, really, a mere error in ‘caption’ or was it a pedagogical project struck open by a child whose daily encounters with authority memorializes the master/ slave ‘caption’ that is now manifest in Black Lives Matter movement?
For me, a transplant from Africa and a beneficiary of the legalized immigration system, this fault compels a confession. As an immigrant by choice I flourish in capsuled memories—intentional amnesia that avoids any history that memorializes violence, brutality and poverty as leitmotif. And so my desires are susceptible if not conditioned to accepting and even espousing a pedagogy rooted in capitalism’s triumphant narratives. For me and millions like me, the brutalities of war and poverty engender, if I may borrow from Azari Nafisi, a ‘poshlust’—”the falsely everything attractive”.
Thanks to this native African American child’s protest. For this dampening of the realities of slavery by flaunting capitalist jargon—the term workers—to explain the brutalities of modernity’s imperial past into banalities of capitalism is revealing. First, it reveals the inevitable modes of articulation pronounced at the points where modernity’s democracy encounters postmodernity’s pluralism. A contact whose meaning was best articulated by Dianna Brydon, a postcolonial writer, as a ‘contamination’: the postmodern idea that modernity’s brutalities can best be articulated by a victims’ participation in the descriptive process—by constructing deconstructed pertinent narratives.
Inevitably, this ‘postmodern contamination’ calls for a sanitized language and culture. Eschewing from the pornography of violence or pictorials of modernity’s experiments—especially slavery. If the Texas text book publisher had been caught by the thorn of democracy’s Rights language, the apology—that it was a caption error—would have been well placed.
However, the chain of events leading to the 15 year old’s uncovering of the so called text book embedded caption, is telling. Debates that preceded the introduction of the text book into the school system hints at something more nefarious than a mere caption error—a pedagogical project. Don McLeroy, a republican panelist in the Education Board, saw the deliberation as a conservative takeover of the education system.
These debates were so audacious in framing pedagogy of exclusion that even the president’s name was seen uncouth. Barack Hussein Obama was ‘captioned’ as Barack H. Obama. The Hussein like the term ‘Slave’ was muted—distanced from the American story. These facts therefore, leave no room to explain the fault as a mere error—a caption. On the contrary what this so called ‘caption’ reveals is a ‘literary strategy’. A strategy that decouples modernity from its brutalities: and past forms of human trafficking from current capitalist driven immigration patterns.
The term and use of ‘workers’ as opposed to slaves in an education setting has a profound pedagogical implication—especially for those from Africa. For it informs and elevates me and immigrants of choice to a privileged position. A position, albeit false, yields a certain psychological force that guides perceptions of history and our place in it.
Unlike the victims of slavery, I immigrated anticipating political safety, social progress and economic prosperity, so I view my desires and endeavors through the prism of capitalism. I employ a mentality that intentionally delinks events.
I see my displacements/immigration not in curious historical context but rather as part and parcel of life’s inevitabilities. Since I immigrated here of my own volition, I’m conditioned to accept calamities not as part of a chain of events linked by curiosity to a history of exclusion and depravity. But rather as events resulting from my choices. This falsity of thought and position inevitably dampens my ability to trace and link events.
Had it not been for this child’s keenness to history and culture, I, an emigre, linked to African Americans, not by history but by ancestry, would have remained numb to that which unites our historicity.
I would have remained oblivious to Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo’s insight that language is that which motors culture, and that culture carries the values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. In this age of globalized everything where the lines between play and war are blurred, wisdom lies in linking events to curious past as much as in deciphering culture and language to link to each other’s humanity.
The great American, Henry David Thoreau, reminds us that ‘to make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
Fathi Karshie is a certified mediator in the Seattle area, where he’s lived most of his life. He enjoys the diversity it offers. Karshie holds a Masters in US law.