Textbook Writers Use Passive Voice to Exonerate Enslavers

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, “How Texas Teaches History,” The New York Times, October 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html.

In the excerpts published by Jezebel, the Texas textbooks employ all the principles of good, strong, clear writing when talking about the “upside” of slavery. But when writing about the brutality of slavery, the writers use all the tricks of obfuscation. You can see all this at play in the following passage from a textbook, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, called Texas United States History:

Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.

Notice how in the first two sentences, the “slavery wasn’t that bad” sentences, the main subject of each clause is a person: slaves, masters, slaveholders. What those people, especially the slave owners, are doing is clear: They are treating their slaves kindly; they are providing adequate food and clothing. But after those two sentences there is a change, not just in the writers’ outlook on slavery but also in their sentence construction. There are no people in the last two sentences, only nouns. Yes, there is severe treatment, whippings, brandings and torture. And yes, those are all bad things. But where are the slave owners who were actually doing the whipping and branding and torturing? And where are the slaves who were whipped, branded and tortured? They are nowhere to be found in the sentence.

“First, Learn How to Write.”

Adam Bryant, “Kathleen Finch: Get Better Ideas With a ‘Pile On’ Meeting,” The New York Times, September 5, 2015.

What advice do you give to new college grads?

I give two pieces of advice. First, learn how to write. No matter what you’re studying in college, be a great writer because it can stymie your career if you’re not. And second, get your foot in the door. If you have a dream job or a dream place to work, take any job that will get you in as long as you’re reporting or visible to important people.

Then raise your hand. Work hard. Be the person about whom everybody says, “She’s next, she’s the one who can do it.”