When Danielle Blake reviewed her fifth grade daughter's history textbook last year, she found it filled with degrading and racist language—and she found Portland Public Schools' response to her concerns just as upsetting.
"I didn't understand why a parent's concerns couldn't even be discussed," says Blake, whose daughter attends Capitol Hill Elementary in Southwest Portland.
Christopher Naze, her daughter's fifth grade history teacher at Capitol Hill, taught from a 10-book series titled A History of US by Joy Hakim.
As Blake was helping her 12-year-old daughter with her homework, she noticed that the texts distorted the history of slavery and the suffering of Indigenous peoples during colonization.
Blake documented dozens of examples from the book, first published in 1993 and updated in 2005. Among them:
"To run a plantation well, you need to be intelligent and industrious. A plantation owner is like a business executive. He is responsible for the work and the workers," reads one passage.
In another, Hakim writes: "But most slave owners – even if they were cruel – thought of their slaves as valuable property. They might beat them, but they tried not to do them serious harm. They needed to keep their property healthy."
The texts also call Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, a "model slave owner," and describe Harriet Tubman as having unusual traits. "[She] was tiny – just five feet tall – but this Harriet was stronger than most men. She could lift great weights, withstand cold and heat, chop down big trees, and go without food when necessary. She had been trained, in childhood, to take abuse. That was part of what it meant to be a slave."
Darrell Millner, former longtime director of Portland State University's Black studies department, says the passages Blake flagged offer simplistic, often factually wrong and racist descriptions of Black figures. But, to Millner, it comes as no surprise.
"Rather than humanizing them and making them a connection that we can share across racial lines," Millner says, "we set them apart, and they're almost unrecognizable as human beings."
Naze and Capitol Hill Elementary Principal Aimee Alexander-Shea did not respond to WW's requests for comment.
The school district says the books in question are no longer being used. Blake says PPS dodged a real discussion of the content when the pandemic made photocopying textbook pages too arduous to keep using A History of US.
Portland Public Schools is an institution that professes anti-racist policies and claims to put racial equity at the forefront of every aspect of students' education. But when Blake made an issue of the textbook, she discovered a larger issue at play: Portland teachers have a clause in their contract that gives them the discretion to pick whatever books they like for their classrooms.
Debates over which textbooks are appropriate for children have long been part of American politics—though what typically gains attention are conservative parents who complain their kids are being indoctrinated. As the nation continues its widespread racial reckoning and debate over who controls the past, Blake and Naze's clash may offer a glimpse of the future.
Blake first raised concerns with her daughter's teacher in October 2019. "I object to the history text for so many reasons," she wrote to Naze. "Can we discuss?"
Naze responded that Blake's daughter could skip the readings but declined to speak to her. "Hundreds and hundreds of my students and families have been educated by 'A History of US' over the years," he wrote. "My sense is that meeting on this would waste time."
Blake, who is white, was surprised by the pushback. "He didn't see that I had a legitimate reason to be upset," she recalls. "I just couldn't think of any reason why a teacher would have any objections to discussing with a parent the assignments he had assigned."
Blake met in November with Alexander-Shea, who told her she would relay Blake's concerns to the district and informed her that teachers can choose supplemental materials under their contract's academic freedom clause.
Having gotten no satisfaction from the principal or the district, Blake emailed Naze on Feb. 13, 2020, requesting a meeting.
In a response, he said there was nothing to talk about.
"If you had produced a thoughtful critique that revealed significant flaws in Joy Hakim's A History of US, we would have had a conversation on this topic long ago. You didn't. Your critique of this work was shallow and superficial on a couple of chapters from a 10 volume series. Not once in 13 years has a single parent complained until you. These parents include medical doctors, lawyers, influential political figures, and college professors."
Other experts say she's raised a valid concern. Kelly Cutler, an assistant professor at Portland State University's College of Education, says it's particularly a problem for young students whose views and understanding of racial issues—and themselves—are still being formed.
"To have a teacher perpetuate that narrative and story is highly damaging," Cutler says. "These are images and stories that last a lifetime for people. What they see and what they hear has enduring impact as racial trauma. At the end of the day, that's what it is: racial trauma."
The issue lay dormant for months after schools closed last March.
Then, when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, Alexander-Shea sent out a schoolwide email about her commitment to racial equity that, to Blake, seemed hypocritical.
Blake followed up with an email and sent copies to the Portland School Board and Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and other district officials. Voluminous email traffic shows the issue never really got resolved.
PPS spokeswoman Karen Werstein says it was Naze's choice to use the books, and he's no longer doing it.
"The book A History of US is not district-adopted material. It was supplemental material used by the teacher, and teachers can choose to use supplemental material," Werstein says. "The material is no longer in use by the teacher and was removed from the class after review of the parent complaint."
Blake disputes that characterization. She says Naze used A History of US exclusively—not as a supplement—and he would photocopy sections of the texts and hand them out. With remote learning, he could no longer do that.
And she points to January emails from Shea-Alexander saying the district is still mulling how to respond to her complaints.
"The committee review still hasn't been done—they said they were going to do it after I kept pushing for months, but they still haven't," Blake says. "If a parent has concerns that materials being used are racist there should be an immediate review."
The PPS policy for handling objections to school materials says a decision should be handed down in writing—but doesn't say how long the process should take.
The district's responsibility, Blake says, is to establish a systemic way to ensure that teachers of history present accurate and inclusive information.
"We're telling children that the white perspective is the only one that matters. I want [my daughter] to grow up to be respectful and tolerant of all people," Blake says. "It's important to teach accurate history that models respect for all people and cultures."