Jelani Cobb, published in the print edition of the February 6, 2023 issue of the New Yorker with the headline “Historic Battles.”
The debacle surrounding the Florida Department of Education’s recent rejection of an Advanced Placement course in African American studies is a reminder that battles over the past are almost always tied to efforts to win some war being waged in the present. The late-nineteenth-century romanticization of the Confederacy was meant to justify the new regime of segregation then being implemented across the South. That campaign was so successful that, in 1935, when W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction,” his reconsideration of the period following the Civil War, he devoted an entire chapter to the ways in which the South had lost the war but won the historiography.
The road runs in both directions. The social movements of the nineteen-fifties and sixties spawned their own, generally corrective takes on the nation’s past. The discipline of Black studies, which originated in the late sixties and is now more often referred to as Africana or African American studies, is a direct product of that wave of scholarly revisionism. Today, during a period in which states, particularly with Republican-led legislatures, have taken to removing books from libraries, stoking fears about critical race theory, and eviscerating diversity-equity-and-inclusion programs in schools—forty-two have proposed restrictive measures—it’s scarcely surprising that a discipline built on an interest in exploring Black humanity would find itself in the crosshairs. That such a thing would happen in Florida is even less so.
Last year, Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is frequently mentioned as a 2024 Presidential contender, signed into law the Stop woke Act, a piece of Trumpist culture warfare that regulates how subject matter relating to race can be taught in public schools, picking up from where the right-wing crusade against Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project left off. (The State Board of Education had banned the teaching of critical race theory in public schools in 2021.) DeSantis also signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which limits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools and became the centerpiece in a conflict over gay rights with Disney, one of the state’s largest employers. (The Governor voiced concern, too, about the inclusion of “queer theory” in the A.P. course, saying last Monday, “When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”) Both laws have been challenged in court, but together they show the demagogic lengths to which DeSantis is willing to go to burnish his profile among conservatives nationally.
DeSantis shared some of his own ideas about the nation’s past during a gubernatorial-campaign debate last fall, stating that “it’s not true” that “the United States was built on stolen land.” That claim, of course, is starkly at odds not only with the history of westward expansion but with the history of Florida; thousands of Native Americans were forcibly relocated from the region, with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In general, the Governor’s objective is seemingly to provide white Floridians, from a young age, with a version of the past that they can be comfortable with, regardless of whether it’s true.
The A.P. course is being piloted in sixty high schools across the country, including at least one in Florida, and is scheduled to be available to any schools that offer A.P. courses in the 2024-25 school year. There appear to have been few problems with teaching it, even in Florida, but on January 12th the state’s education department sent a letter to the College Board, which oversees the creation and implementation of A.P. courses, notifying it that the curriculum is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” On January 20th, Manny Diaz, Jr., the commissioner of education, tweeted, “We proudly require the teaching of African American history. We do not accept woke indoctrination masquerading as education.” He cited the course’s references to notable academics, including Robin D. G. Kelley, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and the late bell hooks, as supposed examples of such indoctrination.
A day earlier, the College Board had released a statement saying that the course was still in draft form, and that “frameworks often change significantly” during the revision process. But the official framework of the course is scheduled to be released to the public on February 1st, the first day of Black History Month. The course guide for instructors, which runs to two hundred and forty-six pages, states in its preface that A.P. “opposes indoctrination” and that courses are built around an “unflinching encounter with evidence” and empirical analysis. It’s an odd note to direct at teachers of high-school students who have displayed the intellectual and emotional maturity to engage with college-level coursework. However, it’s likely intended not for them but for any bureaucrats and politicians who believe that “wokeism”—a threadbare slang term for social awareness—is an actual ideology.
Of all the criticisms aimed at the course, the most questionable is the department’s contention that it “lacks educational value.” The course includes contributions from some of the most highly regarded academics in the field, including the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the historians Nell Irvin Painter and Annette Gordon-Reed. Faculty from Harvard, Emory, Georgetown, the University of California, and the University of Connecticut are on an advisory board. With that contention, the department is, in effect, dismissing the import of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography “My Bondage and My Freedom,” excerpts of which are included in the curriculum; the Dred Scott decision, also excerpted; and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, whose origins are explored in detail. In fact, the idea that the subject matter covered in the course does not warrant a place in the classroom is contradicted by Florida’s own educational standards. Among the topics examined are the transatlantic slave trade, the roots of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the civil-rights movement, some of which students are taught as early as the fourth grade.
Last Wednesday, three Florida high-school students, represented by the civil-rights attorney Benjamin Crump, said that they were prepared to sue the DeSantis administration if the ban on the course is not lifted. But there is little likelihood that the course can be revised in such a way that it is palatable to DeSantis and the state’s education department without losing the essence of what it is attempting to convey about the miasma of race in American history. Their sense appears to be that the evils of the past are not nearly as dangerous now as the willingness to talk about them in the present.