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

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.'

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