Sanitizing Slavery in US Education Perpetuates Anti-Black Sentiment!

On July 21, GOP presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis attempted to locate the silver lining in American chattel slavery at a press appearance in Utah. “Some of the folks… eventually parlayed being a blacksmith into doing things later in life,” he added of enslaved people.

DeSantis made these remarks while supporting the Florida State Board of Education’s new guidelines for teaching African American history in public schools, which minimize and whitewash African enslavement in the Americas.

To refresh your memory, slavery in the United States was a 246-year-long apocalypse that involved capturing 300,000 Africans, bringing them over the Atlantic, beating, torturing, and raping them, and working them to death.

To refresh your memory, slavery in the United States was a 246-year-long apocalypse that involved capturing 300,000 Africans, bringing them over the Atlantic, beating, torturing, and raping them, and working them to death.

The racist notion that slavery was a great self-improvement experience for enslaved Africans is not new. It’s the same racist reasoning that Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, employed 240 years ago in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, when he stated that many enslaved Africans “have been brought up to the handicraft arts” under the tutelage of “the whites.” It’s the same logic that American abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglas used to debunk the notion of the “happy slave” in 1845.

The notion that Europeans took Africans from West Africa and then trained them to be farmhands and blacksmiths is absurd beyond belief. “Because rice was not indigenous to the Americas and plantation owners had no knowledge of how to grow it,” historian Michael W Twitty writes, “enslaved Africans [with experience growing it] were brought to fuel its husbandry, feeding the US’ eastern seaboard, Britain, and provisioning many parts of the British Caribbean.”

It has been reported elsewhere that “African men with iron producing abilities were imported to the Chesapeake [in the state of Virginia] to serve as blacksmiths… Ironworkers were a privileged class in West and West Central Africa.”

There is plenty of historical data to refute the ludicrous notion about slavery advanced by the Florida State Board of Education. However, this is far from the only issue with its new curriculum standards.

It attempts to avoid addressing the awful truths and consequences of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and white vigilantism by using rhetoric like “positive contributions” and “African patriots.”

The middle school benchmarks emphasize the necessity to “analyze slave revolts that occurred in early colonial America” and “examine the Underground Railroad and its importance to those seeking freedom,” but nothing about why enslaved Black people would revolt or steal their way to freedom is mentioned. Even when the transatlantic slave trade or the nature of American chattel slavery are mentioned, it is in the context of “systematic slave trading in Africa” or in relation to “indentured servitude contracts”.

All of this follows DeSantis’ anti-“wokeness” crusade and his success in removing “critical race theory” (CRT) from Florida’s public institutions, colleges, and universities last year. While the Florida State Board of Education appears content to join the governor’s anti-woke crusade, there appears to be little concern about the impact on kids.

Sanitizing Slavery in US Education Perpetuates Anti-Black Sentiment

Glossing over the horrible history of US slavery would only enhance anti-Blackness in the short term by signaling that anything spoken, written, done, or experienced by Black people in the US is irrelevant and should be erased and marginalized. In the long run, it will also create internalized prejudice among African Americans.

Racism in “anti-woke” curricula and book bans in Florida and across the United States will promote anti-Blackness in yet another generation of youngsters.

DeSantis is far from alone in his attacks, which have a long history. In 2022, there was a brief attempt to persuade the Texas State Board of Education to include the term “involuntary relocation of African people during colonial times” in the state’s social studies curriculum for public schools, but the board declined.

A year before, the state approved legislation prohibiting schools from teaching any items that could cause an individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race or sex.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who signed it into law, stated that more needed to be done to “abolish” CRT at the time.

In Florida, roughly 21% of public school students are Black; in Texas, 13% are. In total, 7.4 million African Americans attend public schools in the United States.

The language and laws pushed by DeSantis, Abbott, and other politicians aim to appeal to white supporters who are afraid of living in a majority-minority country that could endanger their economic and political dominance. They serve to conceal the reality about the Black experience in the United States and the pervasiveness of racism in America. They are purposefully anti-Black.

Since I was six years old, I’ve been curious in the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness in the United States. My mother and I stepped into a Black-owned mom-and-pop business in Mount Vernon, New York, at the boundary of the Eastchester section of the Bronx, one summer day in 1976.

My mother grumbled angrily about the higher pricing at the store for items she often purchased at a Met supermarket or Waldbaum’s. “If it’s black, it’s no good,” she said as we walked out of the store, not for the first time.

What my mother said, articulating a prevalent misconception about Black companies, and what I experienced while growing up shopping at Black-owned establishments never really matched up, therefore I never internalized this anti-Blackness the way my mother did. When I heard about the discriminatory lending procedures that made Black-owned businesses more expensive to run in college, I finally let go of my anti-Black prejudice.

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The 1954 Brown v Board of Education case, in which the US Supreme Court decided that state-sanctioned apartheid in schools was unconstitutional, informed my thinking on anti-Black racism and internalized racism.

Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights lawyer and the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund was the case’s principal litigator, involving segregated schools in Kansas, Virginia, Delaware, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia.

Marshall and his team successfully argued before the Supreme Court that bringing Black schools up to the material level of white-only schools was insufficient to ensure equal education for Black children. Segregation was “inherently unequal,” as Chief Justice Earl Warren noted in the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgment in favor of the parents, because of the long-term cultural and psychological damage Jim Crow inflicted on them.

Scholars, activists, and educators would push for more inclusive school curricula throughout the next seven decades. They recognized that anti-Blackness was systematic in US education and frequently excluded Black ideas, authors, and experiences.

In this context, any curriculum that emphasizes the existence of slavery elsewhere or that some enslaved Black people learned a trade deprives pupils of the ability to think critically about their past, present, and future. This type of schooling, and the racist discourse accompanying it, imply that the reality of the Black past is unimportant, as is their education and complete development as human beings in a multiracial society.

It is apparent that as long as DeSantis, Abbott, and others continue to attack, state education departments around the country will change curricula and remove literature they deem anti-racist. For millions of African American children, this entails a lack of representation of Black authors, thinkers, ideas, and realities.

It signifies a paternalistic and racist exaggeration of slavery’s horrors and the perseverance required for enslaved Black people to establish a culture of resistance that would foster social justice movements and cultural creativity worldwide once independence was achieved.

It means that knowledge of such resistance and ingenuity, including the way to the Brown v Board of Education decision, could be marginalized or destroyed by a “anti-woke” politician or state education board.

Anti-racist education, according to DeSantis, Abbott, and others, is “teaching kids to hate this country.” My own intellectual progress, while discouraging, would not have occurred without understanding on systemic racism and its deep roots in the United States and the West.

Learning about human history is difficult and uncomfortable, especially when confronted with truths that expose lies learned at a younger age. However, it freed me to think in unconventional ways about Blackness and the world. Disappointing white students by telling them the ugly history of American racism is not teaching hatred, but failing to teach the truth about the Black experience is teaching anti-Blackness to Black students.

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