Florida Board of Education approved controversial new standards for teaching Black history in the state’s public schools. The move has already received criticism from the president of the NAACP and Florida’s teachers union. The new standards come after the state passed new legislation under Gov. Ron DeSantis that bars instruction in schools that suggests anyone is privileged or oppressed based on their race or skin color. DeSantis has used his fight against “wokeness” to boost his national profile amid a national discussion of how racism and history should be taught in schools.
The new standards require instruction for middle school students to include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit,” a document listing the standards and posted in the Florida Department of Education website said. Some slaves did, in fact, perform trades and learn skills. But these guidelines de-emphasize the back-breaking, life-shortening fieldwork on the cotton, rice and sugar cane plantations as “agricultural work,” just one of many “trades.” In all cases, this was forced labor required of Black people who were enslaved. That should never be downplayed.
Trying to humanize slaves and showing school children that enslaved people had inner lives is important. But teaching students that enslaved people could acquire skills doesn’t really do that or help students explore anything about their hopes, their dreams or their fears. In fact, teaching that their skills could sometimes be “applied for their personal benefit” rather misses the point. It runs the risk of making slavery seem somehow more benign than it was.
The real truth and what should be emphasized is that slavery was an abomination that was beyond redemption. That people built their riches on the backs of people they literally owned. As an alum of a Florida educational institution I’m embarrassed, but not shocked. When you combine these standards, with the current school environment, the hostility towards hot triggering topics, it allows an environment where there’s going to be a lot of uncomfortable students.
For a closer view imagine this, somebody wakes you up in the morning and tells you to wash up and get dressed in clothes they provide. If you don’t move fast enough, they have methods of punishment, you go to a certain location and you eat whatever you’re fed. You go to a job that you never asked for and do whatever you’re told. If you have a child, it’s taken from you and sold to somebody else where also you might be forced to have your owner’s child. You don’t get paid, you don’t get a vacation and it’s against the law to learn to read and don’t forget to keep your eyes down. Black enslavement had no redeeming or mitigating features. Those who drafted this personal benefit benchmark not only are wrong but also risk spreading historical illiteracy, making it impossible to explain to students what was actually done to enslaved Black people in the U.S. This is a huge step backwards.
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