While Republican controlled legislatures have passed a slew of laws that prohibit the teaching of Critical Race Theory, it’s not entirely clear just what they are prohibiting. That’s a real concern. Will such laws have a chilling effect on how race is taught in the classroom? Will it prohibit teaching race in a way that might make students uncomfortable? Will it force teachers to white-wash American history when it comes to race?
Republicans, meet Noah Webster, forgotten founding father. Webster, America’s great lexicographer, is famous for his American Dictionary of the English Language. But his dictionary, the work of a lifetime, was only one part of his educational project. In his own day, Webster was at least as famous for his The American Spelling Book and his Little Reader’s Assistant. In addition to teaching grammar, the books sought to impart moral and political lessons on young and impressionable minds. Included among the stories in Webster’s Little Reader’s Assistant was “The Treatment of African Slaves.” Webster did not shrink from the brutality of slavery, beginning with the capture of slaves and the awful journey across the Atlantic: “Sometimes they rise against their cruel masters, and attempt to regain their liberty: But for this, they are stabbed on the spot, or beat and mangled in the most barbarous manner; or tied to the ropes and scourged with whips and canes.” He then explained that arriving in America, they were sold, where “no regard is paid to relations. Parents are separated from children, and husbands dragged from wives.”
Describing this practice, Webster pushed his young reader to think about slavery in moral and political terms; to think about it in ways that were sure to make the reader uncomfortable:
“Shall this barbarous and unlawful practice always prevail? Are the negroes brutes? Or are they men like ourselves? What right hath one man to enslave another? Have not the negroes the same right to steal us, our wives and children, transport us to Africa, and reduce us to bondage, as we have to enslave them? If there is justice in heaven, vengeance must fall upon the heads of men who commit this outrage upon their own kind?”
A few stories later, Webster includes “Lamentations of an Old Female Slave.” It describes how she was torn from her home, forced to labor for her owner, and, “enfeebled with extreme oppression,” is “cast off” to fend for herself as she is now “unable to labor.”
Webster’s Little Reader was published in 1790, after the Constitution’s compromises with slavery, and even included a brief explanation of the Constitution. And yet among his stories, he includes some that forced young readers to critically wrestle with the moral and political injustice of slavery.
Is Webster’s work unpatriotic? Can it be taught under these new state laws? Would Webster be accused of distorting American history?