How Could They Say That? The Problem of Offensive Content
The first-hand evidence of history is not always pretty.
Scattered among the 15,000 pages of American Journeys are many
that may make your students or their parents uncomfortable. Be
prepared to encounter such moments and to use them to help
students understand their own beliefs and values, as well as to
learn how complex history is if they look beneath the usual
textbook simplifications. Here are some examples of
objectionable content and how you might respond.
Racism. When Africans and African-Americans appear in these
early texts, white authors usually reflect the prejudices and
misconceptions prevalent at the time. Your students may come
across objectionable comments, remarks, or descriptions, for
example, when reading about the sixteenth-century African member
of the Narvaez expedition, Estebanico, or about the only black
member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, York. Far more
widespread in this body of literature are racist stereotypes of
Native Americans, particularly in the late-eighteenth and
To help your students grapple with these passages, ask them
to consider a few questions: Where the information came from?
Who wrote down the offending words? What values and motives
those authors may have had? Why they did not share our modern
values? How people of color might have described the same events
differently? Why only the white version of history survived in
print? What the proper stance of a modern reader or historian
ought to be toward them?
Vocabulary. These pages are liberally laced with terminology
that has acquired objectionable connotations over the centuries.
By far the most common example is the word “savages” used in
places where we today would say “Native Americans.” This usage
derives from an early (and bad) English translation of the
French word “sauvage” which meant uncivilized-“without religion,
laws, or fixed habitation”-rather than violent, brutal, or
cruel. Other offensive terms that your students will encounter
include “squaw” for Indian woman and a wide variety of archaic
tribal names, such as “Winnebago” for the modern “Ho-Chunk.”
Many find these terms just as offensive as white readers would
if they discovered their ancestors constantly referred to here
as “rednecks” and “honkies.” To help them in this situation,
encourage your students to interrogate the text: Who wrote down
the offending words? What values and motives did those authors
have? Why didn’t they share our modern values? Where did our own
values come from?
Sex. Although graphic details are usually not given, there
are many accounts in American Journeys describing sexual
habits and practices because these were differences that stood
out dramatically when cultures made contact. Early authors
frequently commented on how differently another community dealt
with pre-marital relations, marriage, divorce, and adultery.
There are occasional discussions of homosexuality or
cross-dressing, and even some legal proceedings dealing with
bestiality. Given the normal prurient interests of many
adolescents, you may discover certain pages printed out and
passed around your classroom for entertainment value rather than
for serious research purposes. Because every teacher, parent,
school, and community has different standards and ways of
dealing with such situations, we simply call your attention to
this possibility without offering advice on how teachers should
deal with them.
Slavery. Given the geographical scope of the documents,
African slavery is touched upon only slightly in American
Journeys, though the blasé way in which it is treated may
appall some students. Far more common are descriptions of the
enslavement of American Indians by Europeans, starting with
Columbus and continuing for centuries, and the kidnapping and
enslavement of children by American Indians. Graphic
descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves or of the separation
of parents and children could upset some students, who may find
it easier to identify with the young victim rather than with the
adult narrator. It may be useful to point out that at the time
many of these documents were written, slavery was a common
practice in societies all over the world, and then to encourage
your students to ask what made that possible. What beliefs,
desires, motives, and standards of value had to be embraced by a
person to act as the text describes? Why do we ourselves have
different beliefs and values today?
Violence. Nauseating descriptions of outrageous violence are
liberally scattered through the pages of American Journeys.
European cruelty to American Indians was common from the very
beginning of cultural contact, and it is often narrated with a
moral blindness that is scarcely comprehensible today.
Similarly, Indian torture of prisoners, sometimes including
innocent children, is occasionally depicted in gruesome detail.
To help students deal with such passages, it is important to
remind them that during these centuries no culture had a
monopoly on savagery. The Spanish butchered American Indians,
the Indians burned the French, the English set villages of
non-combatants on fire, Americans gunned down unarmed Indian
Christians, Catholics tortured Protestants, Protestants
slaughtered Catholics, and back home in Europe, they all burned
the women they thought were witches. Violence was commonplace,
and it may be useful for your students to inquire why that is no
longer so. Why do we no longer believe it’s appropriate to treat
others in the ways described in these texts? It may also be
useful for them to ask, under what conditions is violence still
acceptable to them: Why might they believe it was morally wrong
to fly an airplane into a skyscraper but not to drop an atomic
bomb on Japanese civilians (or to eat a hamburger)?
Sexism. Some students may be offended by passages describing
women as sexual commodities, showing Indian women reduced to
brute laborers, or depicting women in other demeaning roles.
Some students may be concerned that there are very few accounts
written by women in American Journeys. In all such cases,
it will be useful to encourage them to interrogate the text:
since most of the male authors also had wives or partners who
occasionally appear in these documents, why were the surviving
words almost all written by the men? What forces governed who
could write, edit, and publish narratives of exploration?
In all these examples, the most useful response will be to
validate the student’s outrage and then to turn their intellect
back on the text through questions such as those above. Instead
of suppressing or avoiding these offensive passages, exploit
them as uniquely powerful occasions for the student to use his
or her critical thinking skills.