As the nearly three million Fla. public school students and their 164,000 teachers settle into the start of a new academic year in 4,200 schools in 69 districts, they are doing so in the midst of the latest controversy, this one also dealing with how slavery should be taught.
The dispute extends beyond the ban on honestly explaining the horrors of enslavement so as not to offend the sensibilities of European American children, as has been widely publicized, including in a recent column here. It now includes guidance on how social studies must be taught.
To recap: In July, the state Board of Education approved a 216-page document which probably would be noncontroversial except for patently false claims.
Middle-schoolers are to be told “how slaves developed skills, which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal beneﬁt.” High-schoolers will be informed about “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans but … not limited to 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, 1919 Washington, D.C. Race Riot, 1920 Ocoee Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre.” And, generally, teachers have to lie to their students that slavery in the United States was comparable to that elsewhere.
But slavery was not a skills training program. Also, it is incorrect to assign blame to African Americans for the terrorism which they suffered in parts of the country. And, while the brutality of enslavement was universal, it was only in the U.S. that the enslaved were deﬁned by law as chattel that could be bought and sold like any other property – and often were.
Also, the document mentions lynchings only twice, giving the impression that the gruesome killing of African Americans as a means of control was not a problem. In fact, of 12 states whose history of lynching which the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) researched, Florida, with 331, ranked ﬁfth. But, on a per capita basis, the state ranked ﬁrst, with 0.594 lynchings per 100,000 residents, Broward/Palm Beach New Times reported, citing the EJI. Six Florida counties were among 25 in the South with the most lynchings: Orange (34), Marion (30), Alachua (19), Polk (19), Columbia (17), and Taylor (17).
It is noteworthy also that slavery started in Florida in 1526 and ended May 20, 1865, a period of 339 years. Therefore, the state has much to apologize for to its current 3.4 million African American residents, who comprise 16 percent of the population, including not distorting their history.
Supporters of slavery have promoted it for centuries as good for the enslaved. Critic and writer Louis Menard noted in a New Yorker book review that, in 1998, the late sculptor Jack Kershaw, in defending his sculpture of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, told a reporter, “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery. Where in the world are the Negroes better off today than in America?” So the distortion of history by the enslavers and their descendants is not new. Nor is it especially surprising that it has been revived publicly by the DeSantis administration in Florida where teachers can be sent to prison if they teach the truth. The disappointment is that an advisory board which vetted the social studies document included several African Americans. DeSantis has been using them as cover, stating, “These were scholars who put that together, it was not anything that was done politically.” He has insisted that the standards are “probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”
But, given an opportunity to justify the standards, DeSantis’ Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah native and former state senator, backed out of a commitment to attend a town hall meeting in Miami Gardens to discuss community concerns. He wrote on social media that he had no plan to change the standards.
All of that, in the face of sustained criticism, including from some of DeSantis’ rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, as well as a variety of education, community, civil rights and union leaders – and children. Some of them have been staging protests, including one in Miami. Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Florida twice to denounce the standards and DeSantis invited her to a meeting to discuss the controversy but she rebuffed him.
Speaking on Aug. 1 at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Orlando, Harris accused the governor of attempting “to legitimize these unnecessary debates with a proposal…of a politically motivated roundtable. … Well, I’m here in Florida and I will tell you there is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery.” DeSantis later told reporters, as he campaigned in Iowa, “At the end of the day, you got to choose: Are you going to side with Kamala Harris and liberal media outlets or are you going to side with the state of Florida?” The Associated Press reported.
“The good-faith explanation for this language, if you’re inclined to be generous, is that the authors wanted to emphasize the agency and skill of the enslaved, whose labor fueled large parts of the American economy in the decades before Emancipation,” New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote.
Bouie noted that a College Board’s Advanced Placement guidelines on African American Studies made that point: “In addition to agricultural work, enslaved people learned specialized trades and worked as painters, carpenters, tailors, musicians and healers in the North and South. Once free, African Americans used these skills to provide for themselves and others.”
But, Bouie pointed out, while the points made in the AP course and by the DeSantis administration were similar, “the language isn’t quite the same. In addition to using the term ‘enslaved’ rather than ‘slave’ — a linguistic shift that continues to be a subject of real debate — the language for the A.P. curriculum emphasizes that Black Americans could use these skills only after Emancipation.”
Bouie also drew attention to the context in which the standards were developed, one in which DeSantis has said that Florida is where “woke goes to die” and education ofﬁcials refused to approve a College Board AP curriculum, with the governor claiming that it “signiﬁcantly lacks educational value.” Also, a redistricting maneuver by DeSantis deprived African Americans of one of their two seats in Congress and he also promised that, if elected president, he will restore the name of the Fort Liberty Army base in North Carolina to the original Fort Bragg after Confederate general Braxton Bragg.
“It is possible (although, given their response to criticism, unlikely) that the Florida curriculum authors didn’t mean anything by their characterization of American slavery. But when the board that approved the language was handpicked by DeSantis — as part of his crusade against so-called wokeness — it’s hard not to see this new instruction on the history of slavery as yet another part of the Florida governor’s larger ideological project,” Bouie stated.
Still, it is likely, at the time of writing, that the changes which critics are demanding will happen probably before this is being read because DeSantis was scheduled to take part in the ﬁrst Republican presidential debate this Wednesday in Milwaukee. Though it is almost impossible to believe, he could yet see the wisdom of showing he can be flexible rather than trying to defend the indefensible and being denounced on the debate stage by, for example, Texas Sen. Tim Scott, an African American, for trying to justify slavery. It would not be wise to hold one’s breath over this but it would also be wise not to rule out anything from a candidate whose campaign is sinking in the polls.