Grammar May Reflect View of Slavery

Rockmore quoteA Dartmouth faculty member analyzed grammatical choices in a history textbook and found bias in describing slavery. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Ellen Bresler Rockmore, a lecturer in the university's Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, wrote about the following excerpt in a section 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."

Rockmore points out that "slaves," "masters," and "slaveholders" are used as subjects in the first two sentences, which portray these actors positively. However, the next two sentences have no people as subjects. I will also say what is more obvious: the beginning of the paragraph, arguably the topic sentence, includes the positive portraying, downplaying whippings, etc.

In another section, actors are also omitted, and the sentence is written using passive voice: "Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner."

Rockmore also notes when "slaves" are subjects in sentences throughout the section of this textbook:

"After all, there are many sentences in which 'slaves' are the subjects, the main characters in their own narrative. But what are the verbs in those sentences? Are the slaves suffering? No, in the sentences that feature slaves as the subject, as the main actors in the sentence, the slaves are contributing their agricultural knowledge to the growing Southern economy; they are singing songs and telling folk tales; they are expressing themselves through art and dance.

"There are no sentences, in these excerpts, anyway, in which slaves are doing what slaves actually did: toiling relentlessly, without remuneration or reprieve, constantly subject to confinement, corporal punishment and death."

Discussion Starters: 

  • What's your view of Rockmore's analysis? Is she interpreting the writing well or being overly picky? 
  • What effect do you think this Texas textbook will have on students' understanding of slavery?