You’ve probably seen coverage of the firestorm over Florida’s newly updated African-American history curriculum. Most of the coverage has (understandably) focused on the quote that suggest that slaves were taught skills which they could use for their own benefit. (“Slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”) I read the entire updated curriculum. So I wanted to share my take. As most of you know, I have a PhD in American history, with a focus on the colonial period but covering the full sweep of American history. I haven’t been professionally engaged with the literature for about 25 years. But I generally keep up.
Overall the text isn’t as clownish as that one quote might suggest — a low bar. But there are still pretty major problems. As is usually the case with educational standards, they tend to be ones of emphasis and omission rather than outright fabrication. Along the way, there’s a decent amount of general sloppiness and a hard-to-miss affirmative action for right-wing Black intellectuals. I want to focus on three points. These are by no means exhaustive. They’re just the ones that struck me as most glaring and also illustrative.
Let’s go back to that line about slaves developing skills. There’s a big focus on the variety of work and trades slaves were involved in. And slaves were involved in quite a lot of skilled trades, especially in urban areas. That may surprise some people. But the overall picture certainly seems geared to deemphasizing the backbreaking agricultural labor that was the lifetime lot of the vast majority of slaves during the two hundred–plus years of North American slavery.
The next two issues are more significant.
A major focus of the curriculum is on describing all the societies through history which have practiced slavery and places where slavery was arguably worse. So we learn for instance that Europeans found slavery already in existence in Africa. There is a significant part of the curriculum focused on how slavery was arguably worse in the Caribbean and parts of Latin America. As I noted above, these claims are not false in the broadest sense. I’ll note one example. The slave populations in the Caribbean sugar islands were never able to sustain themselves. They required constant import of new captives from Africa because mortality rates were so high. This was true for many reasons. But the especially brutal and deadly features of early-modern sugar production played a big role.
On its own this is a significant topic which helps us understand the differing slavery regimes that grew up around different staple crops and how different slave economies in the New World were structured. But this document is a K-12 curriculum where we don’t generally see a lot of chronological or geographical comparative history tied to a single topic. That’s a bit of a giveaway right there. The upshot of this whole part of the curriculum is definitely to soften the image of North American slavery. Everybody had slavery, the argument seems to go, and slaves in North America had it better than slaves in some other places.
To put it in contemporary terms, there’s a lot of whateaboutism and blame shifting baked into this curriculum. And this is the best example of it.
My third point comes when the curriculum gets to Reconstruction and the return of what white Southerners then called “home rule” in the South and which we’d call the Jim Crow system. Or rather, that’s the problem: in this curriculum we never quite get there. It’s a big document and a lot of topics are covered somewhere. If you do word searches you’d find most of the key words. But this whole part of the story is pretty radically de-emphasized. The curriculum discusses the “first Civil Rights Era” and then the “second Civil Rights Era.” But if you were new to the topic you might be scratching your head wondering why the second was even necessary.
Needless to say, this is a pretty big part of the story: the violent reimposition of white rule in the South and how it was sustained by a system of discriminatory laws and organized violence for between 70 and 90 years, depending on your definitions and precisely which parts of the country you’re talking about. In some ways we might even argue that the period from the late 1870s to the first years of the 20th century is as important or even more important for understanding race and racism in modern America than the two centuries before 1865.
Again, this topic isn’t totally ignored. The documents’ defenders could pull various quotes to try to refute what I’m arguing. But I don’t think any fair minded reader would dispute the points I’m making here. These are by no means the only problems with this curriculum, which you can read yourself here. They are just the big, broad-brush ones that jumped out most forcefully on my reading, the most foundational. So while the public conversation is focused on that one sentence I flagged above, it’s also the case that the overall picture is distorted and incomplete, just in ways that aren’t as easy to capture in a single reference or quote.
Let me conclude by trying to look behind the document — not so much to its flaws but to what I believe are the aims of its authors. Those aims are likely not identical to those of its political backers. But they strongly overlap.
There’s definitely a strong emphasis on the individual achievements of particular enslaved people, individual freedmen and women after Emancipation and other free Blacks in the United States before 1865. There’s an onward-and-upward feel to the whole thing. The authors of the curriculum have argued that this is to give agency to the oppressed, to focus on the positive. There’s certainly some place for that. But the effect is definitely to deemphasize systems of oppression which are central to contemporary discussions of racism and African-American history in the United States, and rightly so.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the authors get some pretty basic facts wrong about some of these high achievers and in at least one case they focus on a person, John Henry, who is a character from folklore who may not have even existed. What we should take note of is that this up-from-slavery narrative is helped along a lot by the deemphasis of the end of Reconstruction and the reimposition of white rule which I noted above.
The last point goes to a basic division in theories of American history. One generally but not exclusively right-leaning theory is that the the inclusive and egalitarian America we aspire to was basically baked in at the founding and there were just some big kinks that had to be ironed out. One of those being slavery. To put it more generously, this view is that the ideological underpinnings of the Revolutionary Era planted the seeds of slavery’s demise. On this view if the authors of the constitution could have come back to America in 1887 they would have looked around at the Civil War and the end of the slavery and said, “Good job, boys. This is what we’d always planned. But there was only so much we could get accomplished in the 1780s.”
The other view is that this wasn’t so clear at all during the Revolutionary Era and that the Civil War represented a highly contested struggle in which a more egalitarian vision of what America was was victorious. In a speech during the celebration of the bicentennial of the constitution in 1987, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that the constitution of 1787 really has no moral claim on us at all. It was a structurally and morally defective document. It is only with the Civil War amendments of the late 1860s that the modern American state — one that has a moral claim on our allegiance — comes into being.
There’s no right or wrong in this basic division in how to see the American past. It’s a perennial debate because how you see it depends greatly on which streams of history you emphasize. But there’s little question the authors of this curriculum are strongly on the former side of the debate and it informs every piece of the document. This is clearly the product of a handful of conservative movement institutions that are the product of the late 20th century and early 21st century. The curriculum is very much a movement conservative document.
All told, there’s a lot more going on in this curriculum than that one quote. But looking at it in totality, it is not really any less flawed.