Heather Cox Richardson
The Florida Board of Education approved new state social studies standards on Wednesday, including standards for African American history, civics and government, American history, and economics. Critics immediately called out the middle school instruction in African American history that includes “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” (p. 6). They noted that describing enslavement as offering personal benefits to enslaved people is outrageous.
But that specific piece of instruction in the 216-page document is only a part of a much larger political project.
Taken as a whole, the Florida social studies curriculum describes a world in which the white male Founders of the United States embraced ideals of liberty and equality—ideals it falsely attributes primarily to Christianity rather than the Enlightenment—and indicates the country’s leaders never faltered from those ideals. Students will, the guidelines say, learn “how the principles contained in foundational documents contributed to the expansion of civil rights and liberties over time” (p. 148) and “analyze how liberty and economic freedom generate broad-based opportunity and prosperity in the United States” (p. 154).
The new guidelines reject the idea that human enslavement belied American principles; to the contrary, they note, enslavement was common around the globe, and they credit white abolitionists in the United States with ending it (although in reality the U.S. was actually a late holdout). Florida students should learn to base the history of U.S. enslavement in “Afro-Eurasian trade routes” and should be instructed in “how slavery was utilized in Asian, European, and African cultures,” as well as how European explorers discovered “systematic slave trading in Africa.” Then the students move on to compare “indentured servants of European and African extraction” (p. 70) before learning about overwhelmingly white abolitionist movements to end the system.
In this account, once slavery arrived in the U.S., it was much like any other kind of service work: slaves performed “various duties and trades…(agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).” (p. 6) (This is where the sentence about personal benefit comes in.) And in the end, it was white reformers who ended it.
This information lies by omission and lack of context. The idea of Black Americans who “developed skills” thanks to enslavement, for example, erases at the most basic level that the history of cattle farming, river navigation, rice and indigo cultivation, southern architecture, music, and so on in this country depended on the skills and traditions of African people.
Lack of context papers over that while African tribes did practice enslavement, for example, it was an entirely different system from the hereditary and unequal one that developed in the U.S. Black enslavement was not the same as indentured servitude except perhaps in the earliest years of the Chesapeake settlements when both were brutal—historians argue about this— and Indigenous enslavement was distinct from servitude from the very beginning of European contact. Some enslaved Americans did in fact work in the trades, but far more worked in the fields (and suggesting that enslavement was a sort of training program is, indeed, outrageous). And not just white abolitionists but also Black abolitionists and revolutionaries helped to end enslavement.
Taken together, this curriculum presents human enslavement as simply one of a number of labor systems, a system that does not, in this telling, involve racism or violence.
Indeed, racism is presented only as “the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping on individual freedoms.” This is the language of right-wing protesters who say acknowledging white violence against others hurts their children, and racial violence is presented here as coming from both Black and white Americans, a trope straight out of accounts of white supremacists during Reconstruction (p. 17). To the degree Black Americans faced racial restrictions in that era, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans did, too (pp. 117–118).
It’s hard to see how the extraordinary violence of Reconstruction, especially, fits into this whitewashed version of U.S. history, but the answer is that it doesn’t. In a single entry an instructor is called to: “Explain and evaluate the policies, practices, and consequences of Reconstruction (presidential and congressional reconstruction, Johnson’s impeachment, Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, opposition of Southern whites to Reconstruction, accomplishments and failures of Radical Reconstruction, presidential election of 1876, end of Reconstruction, rise of Jim Crow laws, rise of Ku Klux Klan)” (p. 104).
That’s quite a tall order.
But that’s not the end of Reconstruction in the curriculum. Another unit calls for students to “distinguish the freedoms guaranteed to African Americans and other groups with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution…. Assess how Jim Crow Laws influenced life for African Americans and other racial/ethnic minority groups…. Compare the effects of the Black Codes…on freed people, and analyze the sharecropping system and debt peonage as practiced in the United States…. Review the Native American experience” (pp. 116–117).
Apparently, Reconstruction was not a period that singled out the Black population, and in any case, Reconstruction was quick and successful. White Floridians promptly extended rights to Black people: another learning outcome calls for students to “explain how the 1868 Florida Constitution conformed with the Reconstruction Era amendments to the U.S. Constitution (e.g., citizenship, equal protection, suffrage)” (p. 109).
All in all, racism didn’t matter to U.S. history, apparently, because “different groups of people ([for example] African Americans, immigrants, Native Americans, women) had their civil rights expanded through legislative action…executive action…and the courts.”
The use of passive voice in that passage identifies how the standards replace our dynamic and powerful history with political fantasy. In this telling, centuries of civil rights demands and ceaseless activism of committed people disappear. Marginalized Americans did not work to expand their own rights; those rights “were expanded.” The actors, presumably the white men who changed oppressive laws, are offstage.
And that is the fundamental story of this curriculum: nonwhite Americans and women “contribute” to a country established and controlled by white men, but they do not shape it themselves.