In Criticizing Japan's History Textbooks, Americans Should Think Twice

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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. …