Florida’s revised 2023 African American History Standards falsify and distort Black history. They will produce a sanitized history. One which subtly indoctrinates students in a perverse patriotism and uncritical worship of capitalism.
The new standards emphasize contributionism or how African Americans served white America’s interests. The word “contribution” is ubiquitous throughout the new standards. For instance, a 6-8 grade exercise asks students to investigate the “service and sacrifice of African patriots during the Revolutionary War Era.” It lists several individuals and a regiment who fought with the rebels but fails to mention that more than twice as many Africans fought with the British.
The new standards constrict the subject matter and pervert the perspectives represented in African American history. For example, students are instructed to examine the actions taken by the new U.S. state to limit slavery but are not required to investigate the Constitution’s numerous pro-slavery clauses.
The omissions are predictable but nonetheless disgusting. Discussion of the Civil War and Reconstruction ignores Black folks’ desire for land-based reparations or radical Republicans, the Union Army, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, efforts to so compensate them. The new standards overlook Sherman’s Special Field Order #15 and the Southern Homestead Act. They also neglect the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. ESMRBPA led the 19th-century reparations movement and is the third-largest organization in African American history.
Predictably, given Florida’s anti-labor policies, the new standards also exclude the Colored National Labor Union, the largest 19th-century African American organization.
Interestingly, lynching, in which Florida ranked fifth, but led per capita, is not mentioned. Nor do they explore heinous acts committed by the U.S. military against Black soldiers such as the Brownsville (1906) and Houston (1917) incidents.
Florida’s new standards represent a return to outdated discredited racist interpretations of the past. They don’t use the new language preferred by historians. They still speak of “slaves” and “escaped slaves” rather than of “enslaved persons” and “self-emancipated” individuals.
Perhaps, their most appalling aspect is their systematic repudiation of the 2021 standards. In the previous standards, first grade students studied Africa’s “peoples,” “cultures” and “economics.” The main objective was to teach students about African Americans’ “heritage and origins prior to enslavement.”
Third graders studied “Ancient African civilizations” such as Kemet (Egypt) and Nubia and their contributions to science, law, religion, technology and literature. Ninth graders examined African dynasties and kingdoms.
In the 2023 standards, African Americans began existence in the U.S., enslaved. They erase Africa, except to suggest slavery was pervasive and blame Africans for the slave trade.
Under the new standards, students are not introduced to Africa until the 6-8 grade level. And they emphasize their learning the “Afro-Eurasia” slave “trade routes . . . prior to the development of Atlantic Slave trade.”
Revealingly, the 2021 standards described Africa using concepts like civilizations, societies, and cultures. The new standards avoid these terms. Benchmark Clarification 1 says, “Instruction includes how trading in slaves developed in African lands (e.g., Benin, Dahomey).”
The new standards treat slavery as a static economic system. It was not. Old-world slavery wasn’t based on race. Nor were the enslaved considered chattel or property. Racial chattel enslavement was a European invention.
African societies had slavery; but were not slave societies. Slave labor was not crucial to their economies. Enslavement was the foundation of the U.S.’s.
Having erased knowledge of African societies, the new standards present slavery as a “school” which taught Africans skills. And allegedly, “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
This insidious assertion presumes Africans did not arrive with artisanal skills. It further implies numerous enslaved persons profited from those abilities. African societies were renowned for metal and woodwork, pottery and weaving. More fundamentally, it was Africans’ prior knowledge of rice, tobacco, sugarcane, and cotton production, the cash crops that propelled the U.S. economy.
Historian Peter Wood discovered decades ago that West Africans introduced “open grazing” into South Carolina’s emerging cattle industry. Known as “cattle hunters,” the West Africans drew on “thousands of years of cattle herding” inherited from their ancestors. “Plantation owners with large herds of cattle often found that enslaved people from these areas already possessed great skill in herding animals.”
After decades of being “hired-out” skilled workers could occasionally “self-purchase” themselves, a spouse, or relatives. This system proved profitable for slaveholders. They maximized their investment” and used the “funds to buy younger slaves.”
A 9-12 grade exercise asks students to explore the “range and variety” of “specialized roles” enslaved persons performed in the Southern economy. Clarification 2 identifies “homes, farms, on board ships, shipbuilding industry” as sites in which enslaved persons labored. Oddly, it fails to mention that they ranged from 37 to 17 percent between 1820 and 1860.
Furthermore, it fails to mention that 400,000 enslaved persons lived in the urban South and half, five percent of the total enslaved persons worked in industry. In May 1863, the 343 enslaved persons made up 59 percent of the laborers at the Tredegar Iron Works.
The new standards are strewn with factual errors, misinterpretations, and antiquated misinformation. They emphasize Black folk who “served and sacrificed” for white interests. Their greatest crime is the erasure of Africa and the presentation of African Americans as a people without a heritage.