Florida is trying to defend new Black history standards that have drawn sharp criticism, including from Vice President Kamala Harris. “Just yesterday in the state of Florida, they decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery,” Harris said Thursday evening, speaking at Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.’s national convention. “They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not stand for it.”
Harris will speak in Florida on Friday afternoon, where she will return to the subject. Meanwhile, Florida continues to attempt to gaslight us on this subject.
The Florida Board of Education released a statement from Dr. William Allen and Dr. Frances Presley Rice essentially accusing critics of disrespecting enslaved people. A provision of the curriculum standard is, “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Here’s the defense: “The intent of this particular benchmark clarification is to show that some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted. [sic] This is factual and well documented.”
The statement continued, “Some examples include: blacksmiths like Ned Cobb, Henry Blair, Lewis Latimer and John Henry; shoemakers like James Forten, Paul Cuffe and Betty Washington Lewis; fishing and shipping industry workers like Jupiter Hammon, John Chavis, William Whipper and Crispus Attucks; tailors like Elizabeth Keckley, James Thomas and Marietta Carter; and teachers like Betsey Stockton and Booker T. Washington.”
Oh, well, a tiny minority of people who were forced to labor for enslavers developed some skills which, while primarily used for the benefit of their enslavers, were occasionally of benefit to themselves. That’s clearly one of the key facts of the system of slavery about which all Florida schoolchildren must be informed!
Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts recently had an exhibit called “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina,” which focused on a man known as Dave the Potter, later identified as David Drake. In addition to being a skilled potter working for the benefit and profit of a series of owners, Drake was a poet who would inscribe brief poems into the clay jars he made—a remarkable act for someone who was banned from knowing how to read or write. More remarkable still is the content of some of those poems.
“I wonder where is all my relation/Friendship to all — and every nation,” Drake inscribed on one pot in 1857. Another piece read, “nineteen days before Christmas — Eve — / Lots of people after its over, how they will greave,” a reference to how slaves would often be sold or leased on New Year’s Day, breaking up families.
Dave the Potter fits directly into the Florida benchmarks as a skilled craftsperson. He is remembered by history, with his work selling for six figures. But his poems speak directly to the horrifying reality of his life and of the lives of every other person in that evil system.
“Any attempt to reduce slaves to just victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage and resiliency during a difficult time in American history,” according to Allen and Presley Rice in full gaslighting mode. “Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants.”
Are we supposed to be surprised and gratified that enslaved people gained skills? Are they imagining that our assumption would be every single one of the millions of people enslaved in the United States over the years functioned as the witless property their enslavers tried to force them to be? They’re framing “[i]nstruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit” as some kind of statement of empowerment, but all it says is that of the many people who developed and exercised skills because it benefited their owners for them to do so, a very few were allowed to benefit from it at all, and whatever small benefit they got was within the context of being treated as property. One of the main things enslaved people did with any money they were allowed to earn was try to save up to buy their freedom, or that of their family members. That’s the kind “personal benefit” involved here.
Allen and Presley Rice want us to believe that it’s disrespectful to enslaved people to not talk about how they “took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants,” but you can do that without implying the system was set up to enable that, as the Florida Black history benchmark does.
The Florida Black history guidelines and their glaring offenses against the teaching of Black history are inherently a part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to gut teaching about anything that might possibly offend right-wing white parents. The standards specifically mention Ruby Bridges, but just months ago a Disney movie about Bridges was removed from schools in one Florida county. Florida law enacted under DeSantis has textbook publishers so scared of telling the truth about Black history that one removed mentions of race from the Rosa Parks story. DeSantis faced off against the College Board with demands to weaken the curriculum in an Advanced Placement African American Studies class. The Florida Board of Education has no standing to deny that any curriculum it approves will be watered down at best.
All of this is part of DeSantis’ effort to elevate himself as a presidential primary candidate in a party that has spent the last several years freaking out about the possibility that race, racism, and Black history might be taken seriously in schools. DeSantis made a cynical bet that pandering to white people worried their kids might start asking too many questions about race and racism was the way forward for a Republican would-be president. And his early polling numbers, before people became familiar with DeSantis himself, show that it had appeal for the Republican base. So, yeah, as the vice president said, “They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us.”
Sign the petition to Congress: Push back against state attempts to ban Black history.