Barack Obama’s Television and the Teaching of Identity

Not too long ago a controversy emerged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the city council approved Howard Zinn’s socialist history book A People’s History of the United States for usage in Philadelphia public schools. I don’t know how school leaders in Philadelphia have reacted to the possibility of using Zinn in the classroom, but the initial Washington Post article was littered with comments ranging from an outright declaration to hang Zinn as a traitor (which is tough to do because Zinn died in 2010) to the belief that socialists are only interested in teaching “white guilt” to students.

Well, if the shoe fits your left foot, you may as well put the other on your right. News about a controversial classroom textbook is now coming out of Dupo, Illinois, where a biography of Barack Obama being used in fourth grade classrooms at a local elementary school purports to argue that white people would never vote for a black president.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:


The book is written by Jane Sutcliffe, a Rhode Island children’s book author. Here is her Amazon page and personal website. Ironically enough, the book is actually approved as a supplement to the school’s Common Core curriculum (an irony not lost on the author of this post).

Sutclifffe has written children’s books on a wide range of topics, including Abigail Adams, John Deere, and Milton Hershey. Just for fun, I decided to peruse her biography of Ronald Reagan to compare and contrast the use of language in both books. Here’s an excerpt from her work on Reagan:

Ronald Reagan And Justice For All

Reagan’s aversion to racial discrimination during his youth and Obama’s drug usage are both true. But look at how Sutcliffe interprets the childhoods of these men. According to Sutcliffe, “Dutch” is raised in a wholesome environment around loving family members, friends at school, and his teammates on the football team. “Dutch” is taught from an early age the difference between right and wrong, and never seems to have any issues with discovering his personal identity. “Barry,” on the other hand, is raised by the television. “Barry’s” family is removed from the narrative as he turns to the television to figure out what it’s like to be black. Sutcliffe doesn’t mention if “Barry” though about what it meant to be “white,” which suggests to me that Sutcliffe views Obama as a black person, not a biracial person. “Barry’s” family, friends, and acquaintances are stripped of their agency in helping to shape his identity. Thanks to the television, he can’t distinguish between right and wrong; “Barry’s” later drug usage stems from an identity crisis and a belief that doing drugs and drinking may constitute “what it means to be black.”

I find it sad that in many regards this book isn’t nearly as bad as the “Obama’s a Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist” tripe that so often distracts us from assessing actual criticisms of the President’s time in office, including the indefinite detention for alleged terrorists (including those at Guantanamo Bay) without review, his military intervention in Libya two years ago (and recent efforts to unilaterally attack Syria), his support for drone strikes, or the exorbitant spending increases on the “War on Drugs” that have had little to no positive effect on the drug trade or drug usage in the United States (Obama should know). Sutcliffe’s book isn’t bad because it paints Obama in a less than flattering light. We’re all biased, and it doesn’t really surprise me that “Dutch” comes out looking much better than “Barry.” This book is bad because it’s blatantly racist and wholly inappropriate for a fourth grade classroom. The fact that it acted as a supplement to the Common Core curriculum is also ridiculous.

I ask you, dear readers, to consider these questions:

1. Educators generally agree that history instruction in elementary schools benefits from extensive analysis of “great individuals” through biography. When looking at these individuals, however, teachers must necessarily simplify the narrative and focus on certain characteristics and events in a person’s life. Is it appropriate to talk about drinking and drug usage in an elementary classroom, even if the person in discussion did engage in those behaviors? Likewise, would it be appropriate to talk about the Bill Clinton sex scandal or George W. Bush’s questionable military record in that setting?

2. Should elementary teachers focus wholly on the good aspects of an individual? Is there room to talk about a person’s mistakes and shortcomings?

3. Why aren’t more historians following James Swanson’s example and modifying their books for younger audiences? Swanson created versions of his books on the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth and the funerals of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis for middle school and high school audiences. I think this effort is admirable and I wonder why more don’t aim to create a version of their publications for k-12 audiences, especially since historians seem to be perpetually concerned with disseminating their work to a broader audience.

4. How do we add complexity and critical historical thinking into the elementary classroom?