Here are the 17 words from Florida’s new social studies guidelines that lit a fire under much of America, on every side of the debate: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
In typical fashion, many on the conservative side initially lauded this news, although some, including presidential candidate and Senator Tim Scott, eventually began to criticize the standards after national backlash ensued. Yet in the uproar of this curriculum update, too many are neglecting the real effects of these standards, along with their potential impact on all of our children for decades to come.
The idea that slavery was beneficial because it taught Black people new “skills” is just one of the most egregious aspects of these standards. To be clear, while Florida is the latest example in the news, there is a nationwide problem with representation of the Black experience in school curricula.
Generally speaking, our education system teaches that Black people started their journey on this planet as slaves, got emancipated, then a tired old lady refused to give up her seat on a bus.
Given that in the 1830s slavery was referred to as a “peculiar institution,” we see that denial of the Black experience is rooted in history.
Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is just the modern-day tip of the iceberg.
The Florida standards do mention how destructive slavery was to Black people, but they essentially compare it to indentured servitude, with teachers allowed to discuss issues like poor living conditions.
What teachers are not encouraged to discuss are the lynchings, castrations, rapes or the violent removal of babies from Black women’s bodies that were all part of slavery. The main reason for this is because of DeSantis’ “anti-woke” legislation, which was enacted before these standards were even adopted and focuses on removing discussions of race that can make white children feel guilty. In December, I spoke to a group of some 500 educators in Florida at the Florida Association for Media in Education conference. Many were fearful of teaching this history and many cried during our breakout Q&A session in speaking about their frustration.
Furthermore, the governor’s view that enslaved people learned good skills like becoming blacksmiths ignores the fact that African people mastered metals pre-slavery, and that the racist infrastructure in America did not allow freed Black people to use those skills to compete with white people for jobs.
Moreover, the fact that Black people were enslaved in the first place proves that they already had skills. One would never know that from reading the Florida standards, which only speak about Black people in terms of their relationships to white people.
There is no discussion at all in the standards of African kingdoms like the Kingdom of Kongo or Dahomey. Therefore, it is easy to believe Africans only developed skills from slavery if one believes Africans never accomplished anything before meeting the white man.
The root of the outrage for many of us is grounded in the idea that many people simply believe that Black people did not deserve freedom. In comments that surfaced in 2011, Florida State Rep. Kimberly Daniels, who is Black and a Democrat, thanked God for slavery because she said otherwise she’d be worshipping a tree. (Daniels said last week that the comments were about overcoming horrible obstacles and that she objects to the new Florida history standards and the idea that slavery produced benefits.) But the paternalistic idea that European interactions with Africa “saved” Africans was also at the root of how the Bible was taught to enslaved people — a good Christian is a good slave.
For centuries in America, our school system taught that Black people were inferior and that anything they acquired in this country came from the generosity of white people. What would our schools look like if we started from the premise that Black people should have always had the right to be free and that freedom was snatched from them?
DeSantis is the public face of policies happening nationwide to remove the contributions of non-whites from history books. These leaders build their platforms on the erasure of the Black experience first followed by others.
We do not ask questions about the African continent because we accept the African stereotype of poverty. We do not ask what Africa might have become if the slave trade and colonization never happened.
What made the Black Panther movies so successful is that they showed the potential Africa had, if it was left alone.
African people had the right to be free and there is no benefit that can be derived from slavery. No benefit can be derived from something that comes at the expense of one’s freedom and the right to self-determination.
DeSantis is the public face of policies happening nationwide to remove the contributions of non-whites from history books. Politicians like him build their platforms on the erasure of the Black experience first and then move to erase the histories of other members of society such as the LGBTQ, women, Latino, Asian and Jewish communities.
They start with us because, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, even white liberals can act on an “installment plan” of Black acceptance and believe that “enough” has been done for us.
That’s demonstrated recently, for example, by the poll showing more Americans agreed with the Supreme Court affirmative action decision than many of us expected. And many textbook companies were comfortable changing their texts to appease DeSantis.
If we are to defeat the policies of Gov. DeSantis and others, we need a unified effort to educate ourselves, support protesting teachers and boycott companies that donate to politicians who whitewash history.
I have encountered too many students of all backgrounds in my university classroom who are angered at the history they were not taught in K-12.
Even white, Republican students who were polled stated that they want a complete teaching of history.
Finally, parents who believe in diversity need to be more vocal. Across the country, parents are starting to take back their school boards from groups like Moms for Liberty that want to deny the experience of Black people and others in school curricula – but more needs to be done.
Silence is compliance.
Omékongo Dibinga is an international speaker, trilingual poet, talk show host, rapper and professor of Intercultural Communication at American University, where he also serves as a faculty affiliate to the Antiracist Research & Policy Center and the author of Lies About Black People: How to Combat Racist Stereotypes and Why It Matters.