In criticizing Japan’s history textbooks, Americans should think twice

Jonathan Zimmerman – The Christian Science Monitor

By Jonathan Zimmerman Wed May 4, 4:00 AM ET
Should history textbooks make you love your country? Most people would
say
“yes.” And that’s why textbooks inevitably distort the past – even
here, in
the good old USA. Americans like to think they’ve reckoned with their
history, while other nations remain mired in propaganda and distortion.
Americans should think again.
Consider the recent controversy over history textbooks in Japan. Last
month, Chinese and Korean protesters took to the streets to condemn a
new
set of Japanese junior high school texts. The books omit mention of
“comfort women,” the roughly 200,000 females – mostly from Korea and
China
– whom the Japanese forced into sexual bondage during World War II.
But scour the textbooks that Americans use in schools, and you won’t
find
any serious discussion of our own comfort women. I speak, of course, of
female African-American slaves.
Sure, today’s textbooks – unlike earlier versions – contain lengthy
descriptions and denunciations of American slavery. So far as I know,
though, not a single commonly used textbook explains one of the most
brutal
aspects of the institution: coerced sexual relations. And I’m betting
that
most Americans would just as soon keep it that way.
Take the example of Harriet Jacobs, who was born into slavery in North
Carolina in 1813. She was sold at the age of 12 to James Norcum, who
soon
began making sexual overtures to her.
As Jacobs later recalled in her memoir, Norcum told her that “I was his
property; that I must be subject to his will in all things.” And so she
was. Although Jacobs occasionally managed to escape her owner’s
clutches,
he did own her. To get sex from her, Norcum sometimes promised her new
clothes and other presents; at other times, he simply held a razor to
her
throat. And that, my fellow Americans, is what we call rape.
You do the math. Between 1850 and 1860, the number of blacks in slavery
rose by about 20 percent. But the number of enslaved “mulattoes” – that
is,
mixed-raced slaves – rose by a remarkable 67 percent, as historian Joel
Williamson has calculated. To put it most bluntly: Black slaves were
getting lighter in skin, because white owners were raping them. It’s
really
that simple – and that awful.
As the great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass recounted
in
his autobiography, the black female slave was “at the mercy of the
fathers,
sons, or brothers of her master.” Black women were also abused by slave
traders, who often raped them before selling them to the next white man

and the next round of sexual coercion. Undoubtedly there were slaves
who
may have chosen to have sex with their owners. But what does it mean to
“choose” sex, when you know that the wrong choice might get you sold,
or
even killed?
Some masters seem to have treated their slaves like spouses, sharing
living
quarters and doting upon the children of these liaisons. More often,
though, they simply pretended that it all never happened. So did the
masters’ white wives and daughters, who turned a blind eye to what was
occurring right under their noses.
And so do we. How many American children know that Thomas Jefferson,
father
of our Declaration of Independence, fathered children by his slave? And
how
many American parents want their children to know that?
Let’s imagine that a coalition of West African countries – say, Ghana,
Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast – staged demonstrations against
American
history textbooks, demanding that the books include our sordid history
of
sexual coercion against black people. I think most Americans would
scoff at
“outside interference” and invoke their own patriotic imperatives.
In other words, they’d behave just like the Japanese. Defending the
omission of comfort women from schoolbooks, the Japanese society for
History Textbook Reform argued that other nations have no right to
define
the Japanese past. Only Japan can do that, a statement from the society
says, because history aims at “deepening love towards our country.”
And that’s precisely the problem. Of course the Japanese should admit
the
terrible harm they inflicted upon Chinese and Korean comfort women
between
1937 and 1945. But we also need to acknowledge our own African-American
comfort women, who were sexually enslaved for more than two centuries.
It
might not make us feel more patriotic, but at least it would be true.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University’s
Steinhardt
School of Education. He is the author of ‘Whose America? Culture Wars
in
the Public Schools.’
Copyright © 2005 The Christian Science Monitor

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