July 31, 2023

Florida Curriculum

Florida's board of education has approved new guidelines for teachers on how Black American history should be taught despite sharp criticism from some educators and civil rights groups. Among the new guidelines for educators are ‘benchmark clarifications,’ including one for middle school students that states ‘instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.’” Reuters

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From the Left

The left criticizes the standards, arguing that they do not accurately depict the evil of slavery.

“Africans forced into slavery did not arrive on American shores as blank canvasses or unetched stones ready for the guiding hand of a White ‘master.’ They already knew how to measure, irrigate, sail, forge, read, write, translate, mine, weave, build, cook, harvest, heal and create. That is what the slave traders were looking for sailing up and down Africa’s coasts: skilled laborers who could benefit them. Not the other way around…

“Decades of research — slave ship manifests, plantation ledgers, newspaper articles, letters, journals and archaeological digs — by dozens of scholars supports this…

“As for ‘being a blacksmith’ — the example DeSantis cited as a skill that could provide personal benefit — Africans all over the continent already knew how to forge iron and other metals with great skill long before slavery. That’s why masterpieces like the Benin Bronzes were later stolen and ended up in British and American museums.”

Gillian Brockell, Washington Post

“A Northern journalist who attended [a slave] auction wrote… the enslaved were housed during the auction in horse sheds, where prospective buyers could inspect, prod and poke the merchandise. During the auction, bidders demanded that the auctioneer strip a pregnant Black woman naked. ‘What’s the fault of the gal? Ain’t she sound? Pull off her rags and let us see her.’ Thirty babies, one just a few days old, went on the block and sold for around $100 each…

Black enslavement had no redeeming or mitigating features. Those who drafted this personal benefit benchmark not only are wrong but also risk spreading historical illiteracy, making it impossible to explain to students what was actually done to enslaved Black people in the U.S. Slavery was an unalloyed evil and a moral catastrophe.”

Gregory J. Wallance, The Hill

Being enslaved was not a temporary condition applied to Black people for a period of 10 years. It was a life of involuntary servitude, with enslavement often ending only when the enslaved person died… There were about 9.8 million enslaved people over the course of American history, less than half of whom, it’s safe to assume, were ever granted freedom. Whatever skills they gained while enslaved were put to the use of the enslavers, not themselves.”

Philip Bump, Washington Post

To read [the Florida] standards as a whole, you'd think Black slaves were mostly a bunch of cobblers and blacksmiths, not cotton pickers, and early American history was largely a story of Quakers, abolitionists, and patriots working diligently to end slavery. Conversely, the appalling conditions of Black slavery are barely even acknowledged…

“There's mention of slave codes, but no mention of families broken up; brutal punishments meted out; women raped; slaves worked to death; rampant disease; miserable diets; and a life expectancy of 22… That's what's wrong with the Florida standards. The skills of slaves are just a sideshow.”

Kevin Drum, Jabberwocking

From the Right

The right defends the standards, arguing that they do not claim slavery was beneficial.

The right defends the standards, arguing that they do not claim slavery was beneficial.

“No one is saying the enslaved ‘benefited’ from slavery. It’s not an endorsement of slavery to point out that slaves looked for every crack in the system to try to improve themselves and gain some autonomy — rather, it’s an endorsement of the initiative and resilience of an oppressed people operating in the worst of circumstances…

“Some of the most honored African American figures in our history took advantage of whatever ability they had, while enslaved, to improve themselves and learn. In Baltimore, Frederick Douglass famously became a ship caulker and brought in $6 to $9 a week, rightly resenting ‘the right of the robber’ exercised by his owner, who took his earnings…

“Or consider Robert Lemmons, born a slave in Texas. He learned from a rancher who employed him and became extremely adept at handling mustangs. Freed after the Civil War, according to Fischer, he ‘saved his profits, invested in land, built a holding of 1,200 acres, became a successful rancher, rented some of his land, added another business, and became a local money lender.’ Was slavery good for these men? Absolutely not. The point is what they accomplished despite slavery, not because of it.”

Rich Lowry, Las Vegas Review-Journal

“Until last week, progressives commonly argued that American history should include more examples of black agency in lieu of treating black Americans simply as passive victims. Reasonable minds can differ as to whether the acquisition of skills is the best example of this dynamic, but it is a well-grounded part of the historical record…

“In fact, permitting slaves to learn skills was deeply controversial in the antebellum South precisely because it promoted dignity and independence. Skilled laborers were more likely to learn to read, and often had more freedom to travel and meet with other black Americans, both free and enslaved. They were thus more likely to escape, revolt, or spread news that slave masters wanted suppressed. A major revolt in Virginia in 1800 was led by Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved blacksmith who had been taught his craft by the man who owned him as property.”

The Editors, National Review

In contexts other than DeSantis's Florida, [the standards] wouldn’t be controversial… This is from the National Park Service: ‘During this period, slave owners hired out enslaved artisans and tradesmen and some enslaved African Americans even managed to hire themselves out. This was one means of making money to buy themselves and their families out of slavery.’…

“This is from the National Humanities Center: ‘Planters expected enslaved people to perform a wide range of jobs that included carpenter, cooper, boatman, cook, seamstress, and blacksmith, to mention only a few of the skilled functions required around plantations… Of course, the possession of skills gave slaves leverage because planters desired to keep them at home and at work rather than, by bad treatment, encouraging them to flee.’”

Editorial Board, Washington Examiner

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