Publication Date

August 28, 2023

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

AHA Topic

K–12 Education

Geographic

  • United States

Thematic

African American

The Florida Board of Education approved new standards of instruction in African American history on July 19, 2023. A firestorm of protest erupted immediately from a range of public figures (including the vice president of the United States), a wide and deep set of voices in African American communities, and a broad swath of K–12 teachers and professional historians.

James R. Grossman

James R. Grossman

It is important to read the standards themselves before considering the essay below, a version of which was published in the Miami Herald (with slight editing differences) and endorsed by the AHA Council as an official statement of the Association. There is much to debate in the standards; there is likely much to debate in the AHA’s response.

The loudest and most frequent objections to the Florida Board of Education document targeted standard SS.68.AA.2.3, which asks 6th to 8th graders to “examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).” This instruction might seem unobjectionable as an isolated statement of fact; enslaved people did perform such work. But then comes what the document categorizes as a “Benchmark Clarification”: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Critical focus on this clarification—and the implication that enslaved people benefited personally from a system that commodified, brutalized, and sought to dehumanize them—left to the margins the document’s other major flaws, which also lay largely within the realm of selection, contextualization, and emphasis. Even the “skills” debate has a glaring omission: Africans brought skills to the Americas that historians have written about for a half century, most notably rice cultivation.

Until recently, standards have been developed largely through an extended process of consultation with teachers, parents, academic experts, curriculum developers, and other stakeholders.

The controversy over the Florida document raises broader issues about state K–12 social studies standards. Until recently, these standards have been developed largely through an extended process of consultation with teachers, parents, academic experts, curriculum developers, and other stakeholders—procedures largely consistent with the AHA’s Criteria for Standards in History/Social Studies/Social Sciences. The op-ed below focuses on the current controversy in Florida. But the AHA has been keeping close track of educational standards for over a year, has intervened directly in three states, and is now seeking the resources to extend this vital work more broadly. Please help us in this effort by donating to the AHA’s new Advocacy Fund.

New Florida Standards Misrepresent African American History

Florida schoolchildren learn a definition of antisemitism in the 5th grade as part of the state’s Holocaust Education curriculum. State standards for high school recognize that to learn about the Holocaust, students must understand the meaning, breadth, and implications of antisemitism. The term itself appears a dozen times in eight pages.

This is as it should be. It is not possible to learn about what happened to European Jews without understanding the concepts of antisemitism and racism and reckoning with their impact.

And yet, according to the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE), the state’s young people can learn about slavery, sharecropping, lynching, Jim Crow segregation, disfranchisement, and ongoing systems and practices of racial discrimination without confronting the concept of racism. The word doesn’t appear in the new African American history standards until high school, and then only once in 14 pages.

Recent conversations about the new standards have pointed especially to a reference to enslaved people learning useful skills (indeed, that is a fact). But insufficient attention has been paid to the overall framing, particular contexts in which such skills were learned, and the revolutionary uses to which enslaved people put them. A skilled dressmaker, for instance, stitched the clothing that enabled her escape.

So, yes: enslaved people learned trades necessary to the southern economy based on racial slavery. But that work was forced labor, and an enslaved blacksmith’s skills didn’t protect him from seeing his wife and children sold. The Florida standards miss the crucial point when it comes to American slavery: the institution was grounded in property rights, and that property was human.

The goal of the standards document is evident in its repeated failure to place facts in appropriate historical context and its directions to teachers on which facts to select and emphasize. Facts that are cherry picked and lack full context can therefore seem benign. Tellingly the standards document echoes legislation passed across the South and parts of the Midwest: it is forbidden to teach that “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” Such requirements, to contextualize slavery only as a “deviation,” have two goals: to marginalize slavery and racism in the broad narrative of US history, and to clean slavery up a bit.

The state’s public school students will not see a mention of slavery until they reach the 5th grade.

These rose-colored glasses help us to understand a comment from a trustee of one of Florida’s public universities: “The record of the United States on slavery on a comparative basis is much better than almost anywhere else.” Benign contextualization indeed.

Given this perspective within Florida’s new educational establishment, it is hardly surprising that the state’s public school students will not see a mention of slavery until they reach the 5th grade; until then, the sole focus is on Black Americans’ “contributions” to American life. All well and good, but also a history cleansed of oppression or victimization. In high school, the curriculum mentions “contributions” 23 times (55 in the full K–12 document) without one mention of “white supremacy” and only a single reference to “lynching.” Students will learn about the exploits of patriotic Black soldiers without learning why none of these warriors were awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I or II or why they fought in segregated units.

What is the purpose of denying young people as comprehensive a history of our nation as possible? Why is the FLDOE promulgating a history curriculum that hides central elements of our nation’s past and refers to enslaved people as “Africans” even after their families had lived in the United States for generations? These men and women were not Africans; they were Americans.

Students who learn that their forebears enslaved other Americans are unlikely to be inspired by such a telling of the past. But the remedy for discomfort is not to ignore or marginalize the lasting effects of legal, economic, social, and cultural institutions that condoned the buying and selling of humans for nearly 250 years. Our work as historians is chock-full of stories that can inspire students and readers without obscuring essential concepts. All facts and narratives require context; in the United States, slavery and racism are contexts that cannot be dismissed as “mere deviations.”

Florida’s own governor has said, “You do not distort American history to advance your current ideological agenda.”

I am not advocating an education that makes children feel guilty for the actions of their grandparents or their parents. History instruction should grapple honestly with the past so that students can shape their future with an understanding of how we got here and why it matters.

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Jim Grossman
James R. Grossman

American Historical Association