Books, Links, Thoughts

A rich white lady from NY wrote that black people fought on the side of the Confederacy

Our Virginia: Past and PresentHave you heard yet? Joy Masoff, in the textbook Our Virginia: Past and Present, wrote that thousands of black people fought for the South during the Civil War. I’m no historian, but even I’m pretty sure that’s not right.

I’ll start off by being fair: it is absolutely horrifying that this book made it past the approval process for textbooks in the Virginia public school system. In that regard, yes, the blame does lie with the state of Virginia. However, I would bet everything I have that the system is equally flawed in most other states and that much more outrageous flights of fancy can be found across the country’s textbooks. I also wonder if we are really recognizing the difference between approved and required. I want desperately to defend Virginia outright, being as I still think it’s the best state ever, but there is no denying their part in this embarrassing episode. Their standards of learning (SOL) system is useless – how can you slap a set of metrics on knowledge that should be acquired in grade school?

Short version, in case you are living under a rock or admirably immune to stupid news: Joy Masoff, allegedly an award-winning graphic designer and author, was caught having written that thousands of black people fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War in a fourth grade textbook that happens to be for/about Virginia. From what I can tell, it looks like she makes her money “writing” (a.k.a. InDesign-ing) textbooks specifically catering to Virginia SOLs and doesn’t seem to do much fact checking (also known as, you know, research). For instance, in this review of her text Mali: Land of Gold and Glory, the reviewer finds that Masoff has blithely repeated an error in the SOLs! She turned “It had a famous university with a large library containing Greek and Roman books” into “The great library was filled with books from as far away as Rome and Greece.” Anybody who’s ever BSed a paper should find this kind of rewriting familiar, and can also tell you how much they actually ended up knowing about the topic they were supposed to be writing about. Hint: it’s not much.

My real question: what business does some woman living in a very nice part of “upstate” New York have writing books for the Virginia school system? As far as I can tell, she has no actual personal ties to Virginia. Instead, I only find these references to her living in Waccabuc, a part of Westchester Country, New York. She does, however, own Five Ponds Press, which seems to specialize in the creation and selling of books written for the Virginia SOLs and lists Laura Buckius as a contact [PDF link] in Virginia Beach. I’m no fan of conspiracy theories, but I can’t help but feel as though a person with experience in designing children’s books got overconfident in her mad internet research skillz and decided to take advantage of the SOL system by jumping on the expensive, ever-changing textbook train. Come on Joy Masoff, isn’t charging $1000/day plus expenses for up to three grade 3-7 presentations enough already? Did the Waccabuc Country Club raise its dues recently?

I know, most level-headed writers/publications have now dialed into questioning the “research methods” of this woman and the textbook vetting process in Virginia (and hopefully the 19 other states that also go through such a process). Unfortunately, I made the mistake of first clicking on a Gawker piece and am seriously disgusted with both the piece and internet commenters, though I should credit Gawker with teaching me to write inflammatory, traffic-attracting titles. Guess what people: just because a government made a mistake (surprise) and it happened somewhere south of New York doesn’t mean that everybody in the south is a drooling idiot. It’s not like it required a northern liberal coming down and reviewing VA textbooks for the lie to be exposed – as reported, a William and Mary historian caught the offending sentence in her child’s book and, SHOCKER, knew that it was a mistake.

A couple of the more… polarizing comments from Gawker’s oh-so-intellectual community:

BrownSugar***s: Gah, my kid started high school (in VA) this year. Thank God he never looks at his books.

Seriously, though, this kind of crap is why we’re leaving. How can any school district look itself in the face (metaphorically speaking) when they approve this kind of stuff, obviously without fact-checking it? This, the Confederacy Month, the W&M sex controversy; Virginia is helping make itself into a punchline.

lodown (is waiting for MizJenkins): So criticizing a southern school system for using a historically inaccurate and revisionist textbook = racism?

You must be another fine product of the southern educational system.

My actual K-12 school experience in Virginia (mostly Virginia Beach) was never, ever about promoting racism, the Confederacy, or any sort of ignorance. In fact, I’d argue that we end up with a more well-rounded education and overall experience, instead of just being told that the south is filled with backward rednecks and that having a position in the North is supreme and privileged. I am damn proud that in Eric Fisher’s recent set of race and ethnicity maps, Virginia Beach stood out as the most integrated place represented. Yes, it is still majority white people, just like the US as a whole, but I’ll take integration over diversity any day. The non-integrated black (blue) areas in the map actually help to clearly show where other cities are – Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, and Hampton in particular. What difference does it make if your city is 25% Latino and 25% Asian if each of those communities self-segregates and never ends up learning English or American customs? I have only encountered serious racism twice: once when I first moved from Manhattan to Norfolk (I had never known Asian people to be considered different until that time) and then again when I moved up here to Rochester, New York. Yes, that’s right. I encounter latent, self-segregating racism in a place that claims to be part of the liberal, diverse north.

You know what, New York? You’re the damn punchline, with your ridiculous taxes and such stunning public figures as Carl Paladino and Rent is Too Damn High Guy.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a recent textbook fail Adrian and I encountered. This particular textbook claimed that Costa Rican people were poor, lived in huts (with an accompanying photograph of a hut in a suspiciously dry area), and relied on the United States for money and support. You know, a third world country. Never mind that Costa Rica is ranked as the happiest and greenest country in the world, enjoys universal health care and public education, abolished their army in 1949 and can thus fund said health care and education, has a woman president, and a literacy rate of 95.9%. Is my husband from a more affluent family? Sure. Is the rest of the country in the gutter? Not in the least. Except for the Nicaraguans. But that’s another story. This story right here is about how there is quite likely no such thing as a 100% accurate textbook.

Stop dumping on Virginia, you crazy northerners. The real witch hunt is for Joy Masoff and it’s in your own back yard.

P.S. Can we stop calling all black people “African American” now? They’re not all of African descent, you know, and not all African people are black.


3 thoughts on “A rich white lady from NY wrote that black people fought on the side of the Confederacy

  1. Kari says:

    The fourth-grade-Virginia-textbook issue caught my attention quite by chance, one of those stumbled-upon things that piqued my curiosity. What jumped out at me was not a purported conspiracy afoot, but the glaring clues that The Washington Post had not reported responsibly. This was an example of manufacturing the news. Sadly, only the discerning news consumer has not been numbed by today’s instamatic, 24-hour, make-news cycle.

    I first noticed that the original Washington Post article (10/20/10) became incredulous when I got to the part about Carol Sheriff. It was hard to reconcile why an academic, a William & Mary historian, upon finding a sentence she questioned in her daughter’s fourth-grade history book, would call The Washington Post as her first response. I would expect her to be intellectually curious enough to call Virginia education officials or the publisher, but the Post article leaves the impression that she picked up the phone and dialed a staff reporter straight away. In fact, Ms. Sheriff has more to say on the matter here: It turns out that a more accurate depiction of her reaction is something like, “Surely this must be a mistake. What a great way to open a discussion about what our children’s text books say about the Civil War.”

    I don’t purport to know how things transpired with Ms. Sheriff, but when I saw her on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, she clearly had no agenda to smear the textbook author. If the staff reporter had chosen to do an impartial report, he wouldn’t have had to dig very hard to leave the reader with a more accurate portrayal of Ms. Sheriff’s view. She was unflappable when Olbermann was baiting her with his take of the very Post article that had succeeded in making both Ms. Masoff and Ms Sheriff victims of their news-factory mentality. Neither of them have had the chance to respond to Sieff’s conclusions in The Washington Post fairly. Hopefully Ms. Sheriff carried out her plan “to send a letter to Five Ponds Press … to notify the publisher of the error.” It would be refreshing to know that somebody besides the beleaguered textbook author followed through on making things right, which we have come to see transpire at Five Ponds Press.

    From the article cited above: “Sheriff is careful to say that although the error was big, she doesn’t think it was intentional. ‘To my knowledge, there is no evidence there was some sort of coordinated effort by state education officials to perpetuate this idea in the book,’ she says, adding that while the state curriculum requires students to learn about African-Americans’ experiences during the Civil War, the curriculum mentions nothing about their possible service in the Confederacy.”

    The Washington Post staff writer in question, Kevin Sieff, raised the first red flag that would call his professionalism into question when he wrote that the author “…is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.”

    Really? As readers, are we expected to buy that? “Primarily” through Internet research?

    I checked out the books Joy Masoff has written. They are books for kids, explaining potentially boring topics in a way youngsters can understand and enjoy. She has covered subjects like history, science, and diversity. Clever titles and goofy pictures attract an elementary-age child, her target audience. One could be concerned if she was trying to represent “Oh, Yuck!” as a microbiology text for pre-med students, but that’s not the case. She’s sold millions of copies, and voluminous reviews of her other books are available. She plainly demonstrates the talents of a trained researcher and writer of age-appropriate non-fiction books for children. It didn’t take long to find this out.

    It is illogical, then, to believe that a respected writer would dash off a textbook by surfing the Web, though that is what Kevin Sieff would have us believe. But you really have to put your brain in park to think that is how panels of reviewers approve textbooks in Virginia. It is intellectually lazy of the reader to follow Mr. Sieff’s logic and assume that the process of producing the textbook was merely a matter between the author and Google.

    The next red flag with The Washington Post lies in the same sentence: Masoff “…is not a trained historian”. The next natural question at this point is, “Is Kevin Sieff a ‘trained’ staff reporter?” He clearly hadn’t even done a quick internet search about Joy Masoff, but rather sensed something sensational to stand out in that current 24-hour period, and formed his own thesis. The article he crafted is not balanced or informative, and again the reader is asked to suspend logic. Would anybody reply to a question posed by a Washington Post staff writer so blithely? “Oh, I got a bunch of that junk off the Internet. Those Sons of Confederate Veterans have some good stuff – all I had to do was cut-and-paste!” For consumers of mainstream news who think as we read, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

    I don’t doubt Mr. Sieff used Ms. Masoff’s words, however the remarks he chose to print could not possibly have stood alone had he conducted a complete, fact-seeking conversation with her. It’s amazing how accepting people can be when they see quotation marks, even though Sieff did not give enough believable information to justify the piling on by the few bloggers that followed. I have reviewed these blogs – it’s hard not to sympathize with Masoff. They expanded upon the emotions Sieff concocted by cherry-picking what would support his bias, but none of them add any information that supports Sieff’s claims. Instead, they make even more assumptions about the author and the process. There is even the inevitable race-baiting and class warfare thrown in. Is it really okay to disparage somebody without the benefit of the truth? Yet not one of them questioned the odd conclusions offered by Kevin Sieff, accepting his tabloid-type agenda like fellow gang members. What’s worse, now CNN has joined MSNBC in the practice of choosing comments that represent the sensational. It’s worrisome that the new news prioritizes creating a hullabaloo over level, dispassionate reporting.

    Oddly, I stumbled upon another report by Kevin Sieff on 12/29/10, and I remembered how put out I was with gaffes in his October installment. The more recent article is better organized and thought out, but it stops short of being responsible yet again. In fact, Seiff remains steadfast in his previous willingness to mislead by reprising his original comment about Ms. Masoff as not being a “trained historian”. The first time I read that I found it an unusual and awkward turn of phrase – he must mean she is not formally educated as an historian. The critical news reader must question why he has so much ego committed to casting Masoff in a dim light. I am more led to question the staff writer’s training than Masoff’s. He didn’t provide enough empirical information to make these statements look like anything more than a linguistic attack.

    Having been involved in text book selection, I know that the largest publishers include inadvertent errors. That is the nature of the written word and the human condition. Unless it can be proven, reporting should not conclude or indicate that errors are conspiracies of government officials and their patsies in the private sector. News reporting must leave out artificially created controversy that could not logically reflect the facts. Textbook selection is an important issue; parents and teachers will always be concerned with the quality of our children’s education, but it seems unjust to cast aspersions on one person without similar reviews of every other textbook out there.

    Fortunately, there are those of us who are equally concerned about what they’re teaching in journalism schools. Let’s hope Mr. Sieff is the only staff reporter at The Washington Post who got away with haphazard, one-sided reporting, even though it has been twice on one subject. Perhaps the Post will ask him to correct his errors and do an impartial story. Or, for the sake of the reading public, maybe they’ll decide Sieff might be happier at another kind of paper.

  2. Lotta says:

    re: P.S. Can we stop calling all black people “African American” now? They’re not all of African descent, you know, and not all African people are black.

    Oh, I don’t know who or where you are, Helen, but thank god for you!
    I am Canadian, full stop. I am black. ALL of my African friends are either Ismaeli of Asian descent (Yes, INDIA IS IN ASIA), or white of British or Dutch descent. I have worked with a few black people from the Congo, and my cousin married a Senegalese man, but trust me, they consider me no more African than I consider myself and think American blacks are bizarre for so stridently claiming to be something they’re so obviously not.

    Both of my parents and all four of my grandparents were born anglophone British subjects in South America. I only need to go back three generations to my Irish-born Scot maternal great-grandmother or my Dutch paternal great-grandfather to find Europe, but Africa – JEEZE! We’d half to literally go back 300+ years, and why would I bother?
    I do not share language, culture, religion, or history with a single black person on that continent, and the only thing that unites all black people is racism. We are as diverse as Asians and I’ve NEVER heard anyone walk around calling themselves Euro-American. If I walked around insisting on being called Euro-Canadian, people would think me mad, yet getting called African-American when I am neither of those things is a thousand times more insane.

    Thanks again for your sentiment – every time I express the same idea, people are truly befuddled, as if a poorly informed few were somehow given permission to speak for those of us who have an elementary grasp on both history and geography.

    Happy 2011!

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