Saturday, July 29, 2023

Professor: Critics of Florida’s African-American history curriculum willfully misunderstand it.


Relating Black History without History

Shackles used to bind slaves on display at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La., in 2015. (Edmund Fountain/Reuters)
Critics of Florida’s African-American history curriculum willfully misunderstand it.

The advent of a stand-alone curriculum in African-American history for the very first time in Florida or any state has attracted a firestorm of distortion and outrage. Most notably, Vice President Kamala Harris sounded the rejectionist trumpet and was promptly echoed by agitprop battalions throughout the country. Harris was followed by the speciously serious discussion provided by historian Heather Cox Richardson in her Substack Letters from an American. Where Harris’s initial comment was refuted by the very grammar of the supposedly offensive sentence, Richardson obligingly quotes the sentence accurately and then proceeds disingenuously to interpret away its undeniable meaning, attributing to the African American History Standards Workgroup a design to defend the thoroughly discredited 19th-century argument of John C. Calhoun that slavery was a “positive good.”

Here is the sentence in dispute: “Slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Besides the obvious fact that this observation makes no reference to any benefit from slavery itself, it speaks quite directly of skills personally developed, and it includes skills already developed prior to enslavement as well as skills developed subsequent to enslavement. The only benefit is the “personal benefit” that resourceful, resilient, and industrious humans derived from their own exertions. This is plain beyond cavil. It is, moreover, reinforced in the curricular standards through clarifications specifying examples that clearly do not fall within the ambit of “gifts from enslavement.”

What, then, is the problem? Richardson is more open than Harris. She makes explicit the argument that to take notice of the American founding as opening a vista onto liberating principles somehow diminishes the “truth” that the American founding was rather moral bane than moral boon to humankind in general and Africans in particular. To sustain this argument, however, she finds it necessary to erase every element of American history that witnesses profoundly against her. In denying the truth that the founding principles were incompatible with slavery — and hence embracing the line of argument of Calhoun, Roger Taney, and Woodrow Wilson about the “birth of the nation” — she requires readers to ignore the explicit arguments of American founders, black and white. From Stephen Hopkins’s open denunciation of slavery in 1764 on religious as well as philosophical grounds to the observations of leading Founders including Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Morris, Jay, et al., the records describe a highly developed sense of incongruity in proclaiming the “unalienable rights” of human beings while indulging human enslavement. More important, she depreciates the efforts of Prince Hall, Benjamin Banneker, Richard Allen, and others who invoked those self-same principles in defense of and petitions for African liberty.

To say that opponents of slavery were inspired by the Declaration of Independence is so great a truism that one can only account for the specious denial of that truism by acknowledging a deliberate agenda to discredit the Founding itself. When the Florida curriculum observes that the founding principles fostered expanding conceptions of human liberty and hence expansions in civil rights and liberties, it says no more than that the steady but difficult progress of representative democracy in the United States — and its attendant prosperity — had never occurred in the absence of those principles. Richardson denies this evident fact. She implicitly rejects not only the arguments but the influence of Frederick Douglass (as does the 1619 Project that inspires so much of the criticism).

When Douglass and Ida B. Wells in 1893 celebrated the accomplishments of American blacks post-slavery, they did so in their essay, “The Reasons Why,” by specifically identifying those accomplishments as the accomplishments of American principles. Their protest of the exclusion of blacks from the Columbian Exposition amounted to the argument that to erase the history of black accomplishment was to erase the history of America itself.

This is the proper light in which to review Florida’s curricular standards. Far from rejecting “the idea that enslavement belied American principles,” as Richardson argues, the standards reinforce the contradiction between those principles and enslavement. Far from denying the reality of racism, the standards specifically call out Jefferson’s formal coining of the racist argument for slavery in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” Query XIV.

Still more importantly — and this is the most egregious distortion in Richardson’s essay — rather than assimilating slavery “to any other kind of service work,” the standards innovatively target the 1640 John Punch case as originating the racial distinction in the treatment of indentured servants — assigning European indentures only to a term of years and an African indenture to lifetime service. Richardson is obviously unfamiliar with this historical record, but that is no excuse for her blithe misrepresentation of the work of the work group.

Finally, no one can close this discussion without specifically observing that the criticisms of the standards are in fact a tacit insistence upon dehumanizing the persons held in slavery. To deny that they could under serious adversity nevertheless manifest agency and inventiveness from which they could benefit is to characterize them as so deficient in the human character as to be unable to “overcome.” Countless personal accounts give the lie to this argument. The stories of the persons who lived the history of enslavement are worth infinitely more than the narratives about those lives that prevail in attacks on the curriculum. No objective in the curriculum is more important than the objective to enable schoolchildren to hear the stories of the people who lived the history and to hear those stories in their own words. They described the ways in which they turned to their advantage whatever circumstances gave scope to do so. Douglass notably did so in describing the tentative efforts of his owner’s wife to teach him to read. She gave him but little, but just enough to spark in him the resolve to have the whole lot. That he did, to his and his country’s benefit. Many similar stories, large and small, were related, and all should be heard. No one should be allowed to erase the stories of the people who lived the histories. And the first criterion — that without which no interpretation can be taken seriously — is to take seriously the stories of the people themselves. And that means to understand those stories as they themselves understood them. Remember, Booker T. Washington did not title his autobiography “down in slavery.” He titled it “Up from Slavery.”

WILLIAM B. ALLEN is emeritus dean and professor of political philosophy at Michigan State University.