As someone who has taught American history in a Florida school, I’ve followed the controversy over the state’s curriculum regarding the so-called “benefits” of slavery with particular interest. The way this issue has been demagogued is nothing short of outrageous.
Florida officials created the African American History Standards Workgroup last year “to review the state’s education standards relating to African American History.”
The members were recruited based on expertise in teaching K-12 history, particularly African American history, in Florida. There were no political, ideological or identity group requirements. Six of the 13 members were of African heritage. Their final recommendations were accepted by the State Board of Education and Gov. Ron DeSantis without dispute.
Yet the Florida teachers’ union and the NAACP (which already has a travel advisory warning that “Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals”) immediately pounced on the standards as racist.
This culminated in Vice President Kamala Harris’s flying to Florida to deliver a public tongue-lashing of those involved. “Today,” she said, “there are those in our nation who would prefer to erase or even rewrite the ugly parts of our past. Those who attempt to teach that enslaved people benefited from slavery … those who insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, who try to divide our nation with unnecessary debates.”
Harris’s remarks might carry more weight were it not for her reputation for not doing her homework before speaking. It’s doubtful she bothered to read the revised curriculum before denouncing it.
The national press featured sensational headlines like Newsweek’s “Ron DeSantis Accused of Being 'Pro-Slavery' Due to New Florida Curriculum.” Roll Call’s Mary Curtis joined the feeding frenzy, describing the new history standards as “Florida’s ‘why torture, whippings and having your children sold away wasn’t all THAT bad’ curriculum.”
The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote: “Florida curriculum on slavery is an obscene revision of Black history.” But his colleague Amanda Katz took the supercilious biscuit with “Nice try, Florida. Slavery was not an awesome skill-building exercise.”
All the criticism cited the same exact sentence: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” That’s because that’s all there is. The imaginative description in Mary Curtis’s article is entirely her own, but she links to an article from the Tallahassee Democrat which, yet again, cites only that one sentence.
Unlike most critics, the National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke read the curriculum. He found that, of the 191 times slavery was mentioned, that one sentence above was the only thing irate commentators could find to whip up partisan outrage. Even that requires an assumption of bad faith on the part of the workgroup, as almost the exact same sentence is to be found in the Advanced Placement African American Studies Course for 2023-24, about which no such fuss was made. Page 6 of the AP curriculum shows an impressive list of scholarly contributors.
When I taught eighth- and 11th-grade U.S. history in Florida, slavery was well covered. None of my students would have gotten the impression that it was anything but bad and dehumanizing. Yet, like anyone who visits Mount Vernon, Monticello or Williamsburg, my students also learned that enslaved people practiced different occupations, from farming to cooking to skilled trades.
They learned that a few were taught to read and write. (We read Frederick Douglass’s incredible autobiography in my seventh-grade class.) They knew that, while many slaves were forced to work for the Confederate army, some free blacks, like many of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, died along with more than 600,000 white Americans in the Civil War that ended slavery forever.
Megyn Kelly had historian and workgroup member Dr. William B. Allen on her show recently. He dismissed the allegations that that DeSantis, or Florida, had in any way attempted to portray slavery as positive, or to downplay the evil of the institution. Kelly rightly called all the faux outrage “disgusting media lies about the Florida curriculum.”
Lawyer Benjamin Crump, always first to arrive at a race relations crash scene, tweeted that “our children need to be taught that slavery was evil and immoral point blank period.” Perhaps that’s all the depth on the subject we should attempt.
After all, in 2022, only 13% of eighth-graders were assessed above the “proficient” level in history. If they haven’t been taught the basic facts, there’s little point teaching how to interpret them. And chances are, they’ll fall hard for the kind of manipulation that Vice President Harris and her allies engage in so skillfully.
Maybe, to paraphrase a famous movie quote, we can’t handle the full truth.
This piece has been corrected to quote Megyn Kelly, not her guest.
This piece originally appeared in MSN