By Jamelle Bouie
Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida was, along with his state’s Board of Education, embroiled in a controversy over a new curriculum for student instruction in African American history.
Most of the coverage, and much of the outrage, focused on a quote from the state’s guidelines for the history of slavery, in which students are expected to learn that “Slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
DeSantis defended the curriculum language, telling reporters that teachers are “probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.” In a statement, two members of Florida’s African American history standards work group defended the language in question, citing 16 individuals who, they say, developed valuable skills while in bondage.
Unfortunately for the Florida Department of Education, several of the people cited weren’t ever enslaved, and there’s little evidence that those who were learned any relevant skills for their “personal benefit” in slavery.
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. It’s an important point that you can also find in the College Board’s Advanced Placement class in African American Studies. “In addition to agricultural work, enslaved people learned specialized trades and worked as painters, carpenters, tailors, musicians and healers in the North and South,” the A.P. guidelines state. “Once free, African Americans used these skills to provide for themselves and others.”
Similar points, yes, but 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 only use these skills after Emancipation.
This is key. Slaves were owned as chattel by other human beings who stole their freedom, labor and bodily autonomy. To say that any more than a fortunate few could “parlay” their skills into anything that might improve their lives is to spin a fiction. Just as important is the fact that a large majority of the Africans enslaved in North America, whether under the British Crown for the better part of two centuries or under the American Constitution for eight decades after the revolution, died in bondage. For them, there was no point after slavery where they could use their skills.
You might say that these are minor, semantic differences. But in history the same ideas can be used to very different effect. And it is exactly these questions of wording and emphasis that mark one of the differences between a modern, more truthful depiction of American slavery and an older, tendentious approach that either de-emphasized or ignored outright the basic injustice of human bondage in favor of a gloss that placed a more pleasant sheen on an otherwise horrific institution.
“Until the mid-1960s,” the historian Donald Yacovone writes in “Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of our National Identity,” “American history instruction from grammar school to the university relentlessly characterized slavery as a benevolent institution, an enjoyable time, and a gift to those Africans who had been lucky enough to be brought to the United States.”
As Yacovone notes, an American student in 1903, reading a textbook written for pupils enrolled in secondary school, might learn of antebellum slavery, for example, that the “systematic training bestowed upon him during his period of servitude, and his contact with higher intelligence, have given to the negro an impulse to civilization that neither his inherent inclinations nor his native environment would of themselves bestowed.”
A different student, flipping through his grammar school textbook in 1923, might read in a section on slavery that the typical plantation was a “self-supporting community” where “the great majority of negroes remained quietly and faithfully at work” as laborers and artisans.
A student in 1943, reading a similar textbook, might learn that “the slaves loved the people of the plantation and stood by them even after slavery was ended.” And a student in 1963 would have read in his history book that slavery “made it possible for Negroes to come to America and to make contacts with civilized life.” Other authors emphasized, in Yacovone’s words, that “slaves learned valuable trades such as sewing, weaving, carpentry and nursing.”
This wasn’t just bad history and false information. It also served an ideological purpose. “As the history of textbooks reveal,” Yacovone writes, “Americans came to see a path to national reconciliation through their shared devotion to white supremacy.”
Or, as the historian David Blight observes in “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory”: “A segregated society demanded a segregated historical memory. The many myths and legends fashioned out of the reconciliationist vision provided the superstructure of Civil War memory, but its base was white supremacy in both its moderate and virulent forms.” The point of teaching fictions about slavery was both to inscribe racist ideologies into the nation’s identity and to justify the renewed subjugation of an entire class of Americans.
It is worth mentioning a few other elements of the new Florida history curriculum. Florida wants students to learn how “trading in slaves developed in African lands” and about the “practice of the Barbary Pirates in kidnapping Europeans and selling them into slavery in Muslim countries.” And in its guidelines on Black history after the Civil War, the state wants students to study “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.”
Read together, these guidelines seem like an exercise in equivocation and blame-shifting — an attempt to downplay the enormity of American slavery and its defining feature, hereditary racial bondage. This is bad enough. But then consider, as well, the political context of Florida under Ron DeSantis.
Florida, says the Republican presidential hopeful, is where “woke goes to die.” It’s where state officials refused to offer students a class in African American studies on the grounds that it “significantly lacks educational value.” And it’s where DeSantis, as governor, has vetoed spending on Black history celebrations, actively worked to reduce the representation of Black voters in the state and promised, if elected president, to change back the name of an Army base in North Carolina from Fort Liberty to Fort Bragg, as in the 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.
This is why the history of textbooks past is particularly relevant. The history we teach to students in the present is as much about the country we hope to be as it is a record of the country we once were. A curriculum that distorts the truth of past injustice is meant, ultimately, for a country that excludes in the present.
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Jamelle Bouie became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2019. Before that he was the chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. He is based in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington. @jbouie
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