You might be wondering how the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) is celebrating Black History Month when it’s not busy banning AP African American Studies courses from school curriculum. Well, the FDOE has an entire page on its website devoted to “Black History Month: Celebrating the Achievements of African American Floridians.” Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr., wrote: “African Americans have a long and proud history in our great state of Florida, and Black History Month is the perfect occasion to celebrate their many achievements. Learning about African American achievements is central to learning about Florida and America itself.”
But such platitudes ring hollow given the chilling effect the Stop W.O.K.E. Act—which restricts how public schools discuss race and gender and removes books about racial justice from school library shelves—has had on teachers and students throughout Florida. The situation is particularly confusing because Florida’s state standards require the teaching of some African American history. But the new laws are so vague that it’s difficult to decipher what is allowed to be taught about Black history and what may put a teacher at risk of getting fired or worse.
“The law will result in Black history being taught solely from a misleading, historically inaccurate perspective that excludes the voices and perspectives of many Black Americans,” the ACLU of Florida told Teen Vogue in an email.
“For example, new school lessons about Rosa Parks remove references to the Jim Crow laws that required segregation and even to the fact that Rosa Parks was told to move to the back of the bus because of her race. These changes minimize the role of systemic racism and segregation, instead making it sound like isolated bad actions.”
The Stop W.O.K.E. Act prohibits teaching anything that someone “must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” on account of their race or sex. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill bars the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3. A third law, HB 1467, mandates that schools maintain online databases of every book in their collections, and that these books must be vetted by a librarian or media specialist to determine that they don’t contain pornography or material deemed harmful to minors. On top of that, the law allows parents to file challenges to remove books from schools. The Florida Board of Education went even further by approving new rules that stipulate that teachers found in violation of the Stop W.O.K.E. and Don’t Say Gay bills could have their professional teaching certifications revoked.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is using Florida’s students and teachers as pawns to build his reputation as a cultural warrior among extremist MAGA Republicans as he considers challenging Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. The FDOE’s Black History Month website page offers a harbinger of how DeSantis intends to whitewash the teaching of Black history in Florida. So please allow me to introduce you to the Gov. DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis art and essay contests.
The art contest, open to students in grades K-3, offers each winner a $100 art supplies gift card and a one-year pass to Florida state parks. The essay contest, open to 4th through 12th grade students, offers a two-year Florida College Plan scholarship and a $100 gift card for school supplies for the best 500-word essays about an African American Floridian “who has had an impactful and inspiring effect on their community.”
RELATED STORY: Book publisher offers free e-books while ‘racist governor of Florida’ tries to erase Black history
But the devil is in the details. The page offers some examples of Black Floridians worth writing about who get passing marks from DeSantis. They include a former slave who became a millionaire, a Black Republican state senator and former football star who campaigned against LGBTQ issues, and the head of the Department of Children and Families in the DeSantis administration. Also cited as examples are the first Black person to reach the rank of four-star general in the U.S. military and a soldier who posthumously received the Medal of Honor during the war in Iraq.
Here is the full list as it appears on the FDOE website:
Secretary Shevaun Harris - Secretary at the Department of Children and Families since February 2021 after a nearly two-decade career at the Agency for Health Care Administration. An innovator, spearheading the development of the State’s Canadian Prescription Drug Importation program. Served as an adjunct professor at the FSU College of Social Work and as a case manager at Big Bend Cares serving vulnerable Floridians.
State Senator Corey Simon - Before being elected to the Florida State Senate in 2022, Simon served as the CEO of Volunteer Florida, coordinating volunteer efforts across state agencies. Simon played football at Florida State University under the legendary Coach Bobby Bowden, before moving on to play in the NFL.
Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs II - Born: September 28, 1821, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Died: August 14, 1874, Tallahassee, Florida. Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs II was a Presbyterian minister who served as Secretary of State and Superintendent of Public Instruction of Florida. He was the first Black Secretary of State.
Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. - Born: February 11, 1920, Pensacola, Florida. Died: February 25, 1978, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Air Force fighter pilot and first African American to reach the rank of Four-Star General in the U.S. military. Flew combat missions in Korea and Vietnam and instructed African American pilots during WW2.
Alwyn Cashe - Born: July 13, 1970, Sanford, Florida, U.S. Died: November 8, 2005, San Antonio, Texas, U.S. U.S. Army non-commissioned officer and posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor for his service in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Saved the lives of six of his fellow soldiers after the Bradley fighting vehicle they were riding in struck an improvised explosive device despite suffering second and third-degree burns over 72% of his body.
James Weldon Johnson - Born: June 17, 1871, Jacksonville, Florida, U.S. Died: June 26, 1938, Wiscasset, Maine, U.S. Writer, civil rights activist, and a leader of the NAACP. He wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is known as the Black National Anthem.
John G. Riley - Born into slavery in 1857 and died a millionaire in 1954. 49-year educator career at a school in Wakulla County and as principal of the Lincoln Academy. One of the few African Americans to own property at the turn of the century.
The Florida Highwaymen - A group of 26 African American landscape artists who painted from the 1950s to the 1980s. They became some of Florida’s most well-known painters and focused on images of the state’s natural treasures. Today, their work is displayed in prominent buildings throughout Florida, including the State Capitol and Governor’s Mansion.
Now just for comparison’s sake, you can go look at the list of “Influential African American Figures in Florida” on the website for Visit Florida, the state’s non-profit, non-governmental official tourism marketing corporation.
Three names overlap with the FDOE’s recommended list, but note the subtle differences in the descriptions. Remember, Visit Florida is supported by Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, and Hilton, among others. If you compare the entries, you’ll note that there are no references to segregation and racial injustice in the FDOE entries.
John Gilmore Riley (1857–1954)
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Smokey Hollow was a thriving African-American community just east of Tallahassee. But after expansion of Apalachee Parkway, by 1978 only two black-owned houses remained. One of them belonged to Riley, a local educator and civic leader. Today, it tells the story of Tallahassee’s changing demographics as the John G. Riley Center/Museum for African American History and Culture, which is a Smithsonian Museum. Through photos, memorabilia, lectures and reenactments, the Riley Center brings Florida’s black history to life.
James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)
The novelist, poet, newspaperman, lawyer and civil rights activist had another title, too: Jacksonville native. One of Johnson’s most celebrated works was his 1899 poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which his brother, composer John Rosamond Johnson, set to music. The song became known as the “Negro National Anthem” and is sung at the opening of many African-American events to this day. At Jacksonville’s historic Ritz Theatre and Museum, you can watch animatronic likenesses of the brothers explaining the story behind the African-American music. You can also read historical markers at Johnson’s birth site, which has been designated Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park.
Alfred “Freddie” Hair: (1941–1970)
In the early 1950s, Fort Pierce artist A.E. "Bean" Backus taught Hair to paint landscapes. Hair, in turn, went on to train other black artists. While the collective of more than two-dozen painters were kept out of segregated galleries, they earned a living selling their Florida landscapes and wildlife scenes on the roadside. Although Hair’s life was cut short when he was shot at a bar, the legacy of the so-called Florida Highwaymen lives on. Visit the A.E. Backus Gallery and Museum in Fort Pierce to see work by the Highwaymen and Backus, who inspired them.
Regarding Johnson, you’d have to wonder whether his most famous literary work, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, will remain on school library shelves in Florida. Here’s the publisher’s capsule description of Johnson’s book:
James Weldon Johnson's emotionally gripping novel is a landmark in black literary history and, more than eighty years after its original anonymous publication, a classic of American fiction.
The first fictional memoir ever written by a black, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man influenced a generation of writers during the Harlem Renaissance and served as eloquent inspiration for Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. In the 1920s and since, it has also given white readers a startling new perspective on their own culture, revealing to many the double standard of racial identity imposed on black Americans.
Narrated by a mulatto man whose light skin allows him to "pass" for white, the novel describes a pilgrimage through America's color lines at the turn of the century--from a black college in Jacksonville to an elite New York nightclub, from the rural South to the white suburbs of the Northeast. This is a powerful, unsentimental examination of race in America, a hymn to the anguish of forging an identity in a nation obsessed with color. And, as Arna Bontemps pointed out decades ago, "the problems of the artist [as presented here] seem as contemporary as if the book had been written this year."
But here are five other Black Floridians who merit inclusion on the list of examples instead of DeSantis’ cronies. These are all taken from the Visit Florida list.
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955)
Born to former slaves, the South Carolina native went on to become a world-renowned teacher, civil rights leader and advisor to five U.S. presidents. In 1904 with five students and a $1.50 budget, Bethune opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. Today, the coed HBCU in Daytona Beach houses six buildings that make up the Bethune-Cookman Historic District. Tour the house where Bethune spent the second half of her life, hosting the likes of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson. You can also catch a concert or play at her namesake Mary McLeod Bethune Performing Arts Center.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
The author, best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is the pride of Eatonville, the Central Florida city where she grew up that’s also the nation’s first incorporated African-American town. Experience Eatonville through Hurston’s eyes with a visit to the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, which showcases the work of emerging and established famous black artists. In the winter, don’t miss the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, a multi-day celebration that includes theatrical performances, museum exhibitions, public talks, an outdoor arts festival and more.
Sidney Poitier (b. 1927)
The trailblazing thespian native broke ground in 1964, when he became the first black man to win the Academy Award for best actor, for his performance in Lilies of the Field. Born in Miami to Bahamian parents, Poitier also starred in classics like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; To Sir, with Love; and countless other films. Poitier blazed a trail for silver screen talents like Oscar winner Halle Berry and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, who are just some of the stars who’ve made appearances at the annual American Black Film Festival in Miami Beach. Check out the event in June to see up-and-coming talent, attend master classes, sit in on celebrity talks and screen films.
Peggy Quince (b. 1941)
All rise for this retired Florida Supreme Court chief justice—the first black woman to hold the title. After earning her B.S. and J.D. degrees, the Virginia native moved to Florida and opened a law office in Bradenton in 1978. She served on Florida’s Supreme Court for two decades, retiring in 2008. To learn more about the role of chief justice, visit the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. Guests can observe oral arguments, participate in educational programs and take a tour.
Angela Bassett (b. 1958)
Before she played characters like the matriarch of Wakanda in Black Panther and Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It?, the actor had another role: student at St. Petersburg’s Boca Ciega High School. To see rising stars from Bassett’s alma mater, check out a production by the Boca Ciega Drama Club.
And speaking of what outside reading Florida kids can do, teachers in Manatee County and Duval County were told in January that under HB 1467 each book in their classrooms had to be reviewed by a media specialist. They were told to remove or cover their books until they could be vetted. A substitute teacher in Duval County, Brian Covey, posted this video on Jan. 27, showing rows of empty bookshelves in the library of the Mandarin Middle School.
DeSantis was asked about the video at a Feb. 14 news conference. He responded: “That video, that was a fake narrative, that was not true,” Two days later, Covey was informed by the Duval County school district that he had been fired for violating “their cellphone and social media policy.”
“I was never told not to take any videos in the library,” Covey told The Washington Post. “I had no communication from the district or anything about what I was doing until DeSantis was asked the question and he kind of blew it up.”
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In December, PEN America, a free-speech advocacy organization, and the group We Need Diverse Books, along with 70 authors, sent a letter to the Duval County Public Schools questioning the removal of 176 book titles from classroom libraries in Jan. 2022 for “review.” The books had already been held in storage for 10 months when the letter was written.
The 176 titles were all from the Essential Voices Collection, which “feature characters representing a variety of ethnicities, religious affiliations, and gender identities,” according to PEN America. These titles include books about Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Roberto Clemente, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Celia Cruz, and the Dalai Lama.
The letter revealed that the Duval school district had actually placed an order for the collection in July 2021 to help improve student literacy. The collection was received in Jan. 2022, but the books were removed from classroom libraries shortly afterward by regional superintendents.
Several of the authors—Ellen Oh, Linda Sue Park, and Ami Polonsky—spoke out at a Dec. 6 board meeting of the Duval County Public Schools district.
In an update, PEN America wrote on Feb. 10, that “we have received additional, conflicting information on the precise nature of when, why and for how long books from the Essential Voices Collection were kept off classroom shelves in 2022. We are working to update the details of this case.”
There was one other eyebrow-raising competition that the FDOE announced on its Black History Month website page—The Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis’ Black History Month Excellence in Education Award Contest which is open to all full-time educators in an elementary, middle, or high school in Florida. Nominations may be submitted by a principal, teacher, parent/guardian, or student. Four winners will receive a $2,500 cash award.
It would be interesting to find out how many nominations were submitted for this award at a time when right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty are helping its members monitor what is going on in classrooms across the state. Here’s what Joan Walsh wrote in The Nation about the state of panic gripping Florida school teachers:
Governor Ron DeSantis’s crusade against independent thought is leading to bare bookshelves in classrooms as teachers panic about whether their own classroom libraries violate state law.
Last year DeSantis signed HB 1467, which barred pornography and “age inappropriate” books and required that all reading materials “be suited to student needs.” But school district administrators haven’t been clear about how they’re going to ascertain that. This month school officials instructed teachers in Manatee and Duval counties to either remove books from classrooms or cover them up with paper sheeting until the districts come up with a way to ensure that none of the reading material ran afoul of the new law. Teachers who don’t make sure their books pass DeSantis’s muster are risking up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for displaying a forbidden book, which is a third-degree felony.
What you end up with is many teachers having to resort to self-censorship since the laws are so vague and any student or parent can lodge a complaint about a book in the classroom or the contents of a lesson. It’s something that you’d find in former Soviet bloc countries as I witnessed during my years as a correspondent in Poland.
A middle school teacher in southwest Florida, using the pseudonym Ella, told Teen Vogue that the law has impacted her ability to address students’ questions about current events.
“I feel it’s my professional responsibility as my students’ teacher to help them understand events around race in the United States,” Ella says. “And I haven't been able to do that. Half of my students come to school with whatever they've seen on TikTok or online and I don't even feel comfortable asking them, ‘What have you seen?’ in order to correct any misinformation.”
Teen Vogue offered the example of Manatee County where teachers were told to remove unvetted books from classrooms or risk felony prosecution. Under the new law, parents have stronger authority to make decisions about materials used in classrooms and teachers face restrictions on their decision-making abilities. The county has been recruiting volunteers to help overworked librarians with the task of vetting books. A Manatee County teacher wrote on Facebook:
My heart is broken for Florida students today as I am forced to pack up my classroom library. Due to the new law that went into effect on Dec. 31st all Manatee teachers must remove all books that have not been “vetted” by the state or risk being charged with a THIRD DEGREE FELONY and losing our license. This applies to both public and government funded charter schools.
The vetting process for new books is cumbersome, so even accepting donated books from parents and community members will not be allowed. The process of finding the list of approved books is also incredibly difficult.”
The new bill does not specify penalties for educators, but school officials in Manatee and some other countries have suggested that felony charges are possible under a preexisting law prohibiting the distribution of pornography to minors, The New Yorker reported.
Right-wing groups have already begun recruiting volunteers to provide boots on the ground to file complaints about books, classroom lessons, and school administrators. A group calling itself Community Patriots Manatee had a “Woke Busters Wanted” page on its website. The appeal read:
Calling all Woke Busters!!
We ALL have skin in this game, whether you’re a TaxPayer, Parent, Grandparent, or Community Member. The society that is being created by this deranged wokeness, is nothing more than Mental Abuse for Children which WILL ultimately lead into Physical Abuse! We all must do our part to SAVE the CHILDREN and OUR Society!
Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, estimated that public school teachers in a third of the state’s counties have been instructed to remove or cover up books until they have been vetted for compliance with the new law, The New Yorker reported.
But there is growing opposition to DeSantis’ creeping fascism, including his efforts to whitewash Black history. On Feb. 15, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton led a march by hundreds of mostly Black students, parents, lawmakers, and clergy from a local church to the state Capitol in Tallahassee, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Protesters carried signs reading, “Black history is American history,” “The new racism is denying that racism exists,” and “You can’t erase what we learn.” At the end of the rally, Sharpton said the policies DeSantis is promoting are “racist” because he is trying to decided how “people’s history should be done.”
“They are saying, ‘No, no, no, we have Black history,’” Sharpton said. “But for them to write Black history and decide Black history is a national standard that we cannot allow to happen. They cannot decide which Black scholars and which Black writers. It is like it is said often, if the lion wrote the book rather than the hunter, the story would have come out differently.”
Last month, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump said three Florida high school students were ready to file a lawsuit against DeSantis over his rejection of an Advanced Placement African American studies pilot program in the state. ”Stealing the right for students to gather knowledge on a history that many want to know about because it’s a political agenda goes to show that some don’t want this—the horrors this country has done to African Americans—to finally come to light,” one of the students, Victoria McQueen said at a news conference.
In Sarasota County, a white parent has been trying to get the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi removed from her child’s middle school library. The book is about the history of racism in the U.S., but the parent claimed the book promoted critical race theory and told white children they were inferior. The all-white Sarasota County School Board held a hearing on Feb. 7 to determine the book’s fate. About 20 people showed up to speak out against removing the book.
”Happy Black History Month—now let’s ban a book that says racism is wrong!” said Tallulah Brand, a middle school student. "You want to ban a book saying racism isn't right and your reason is that this book is racist?," she added. "We can't start banning books just because one person has an issue with it. At this rate we won't have any books left."
Brand's mother, Kia Brand, spoke to WUSF about her concerns over the potential ban a day before the school board meeting. She said she had read Stamped. "It was just good to be able to read the book, and, you know, read about people that I really didn't know a lot about, like Angela Davis. I didn't know about all the things that she's done for women and prison reform," said Brand, who is white. "And, you know, just being able to learn more about Black history that I definitely would not have known had I not read the book.
"It's funny to me, they say [it's about] parents' rights. And it really is taking away rights from a large group of parents," Kia Brand said.
The board ended up upholding its earlier decision to keep the book in middle school libraries, but require parental permission for it to be checked out.
The Dream Defenders, an organization of young people who came together to fight against racial and economic injustice after the 2012 murder of Black teenager Trayvon Marin by a white man, is working with leftist publishers to distribute books and literature to Florida students.
The donated books are being used for free community libraries and by teachers who are giving books to their students. Youth organizations are creating book discussion groups on campuses, Teen Vogue reported. Alisha Cox, a Dream Defenders organizer, told Teen Vogue, “Florida has a rich black history that people don’t know about … and rather than centering these stories of the now-marginalized communities that have built this state, [DeSantis] is saying that they are not of educational value.”
She added that the school censorship has just made students want to look more into their history themselves, and “maybe that’s a good thing.” “I haven't spoken to a single student that was happy or felt good about what was happening in their schools. They're reaching out to us and asking how we can help them organize against it.”