How the changes in Florida’s Black History curriculum reflect on education as a political battlefield

Ron DeSantis Cabinet meeting photo Date: 26 February 2019 Source: https://flgov.smugmug.com/Governor-Ron-DeSantis/February-/2-26-Cabinet-/i-r6CtVzV/A Unknown Author

The future does not seem too bright for the Sunshine State as Governor Ron DeSantis along with other Republican officials passed a bill to change the curriculum centered around Black History and the way it must be taught in Florida schools across the entire K12 program. Where is Florida headed and will Ron DeSantis’s actions have a domino effect across the other ex-slave states?

In July 2023, Ron DeSantis, Florida’s current governor and an ex-candidate to the US presidency, signed a bill which was passed by the Florida Board of Education. This bill was about reforming the current K12 educational program on Black History and how professors will now have to teach it to Floridian children throughout their formative years. That reform very quickly made itself known across the country, to the indignation of many who see in this reform a way to whitewash Florida’s history and its role in perpetuating slavery. Among other things, official documents state that the curriculum will now be teaching Floridian children that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”1

This change is part of the larger Individual Freedom Act or Stop WOKE Act (Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act) which aims to regulate the content that will be taught to Florida’s employees and students. The act was signed in April 2022. As per the words of Lieutenant Governor of Florida Jeanette Nuñez, who is also a Republican, this act “gives students and employees the resources they need to fight back against discrimination, critical race theory and indoctrination.”. DeSantis himself declared that this act would also give the tools to fight back against “woke indoctrination”.2


This change in Florida schools’ curricula garnered many reactions, with voices rising up in protest against what this act entails to the education of the Floridian children.

This article aims to analyze the reactions to this bill and elaborate on how Florida’s own history as well as that of the Republican party influenced DeSantis’ decision to sign this act, and its possible ramifications in the future.

Reactions both within the country and outside

Within a few days after the announcement of the revisions to the curriculum, voices started to rise in protest of these new guidelines. Chief among them was Kamala Harris, the Vice-President of the Biden Administration who decried the reform as “revisionist and a disservice to the students”3 adding that slavery was “one of the worst examples of depriving humans from their freedom.”  That sentiment is shared by numerous teachers as highlighted in a CNN report quoting a middle school teacher named Mayade Ersoff who declared that “These standards are atrocious,” and that “There are no benefits (to slavery). There are no benefits to being grabbed from your home, shackled on boats, being lynched, being beaten. Not allowed to read and write. And treated like a piece of property.”4 In the same article, the reaction of an historian named Marvin Dunn, who led a march in protest against this reform, is also given: “We will not stand for it, and we will not allow our children to be taught these lies.”.5 Another article by New York-based magazine Time points out the reactions of both the Florida Education Association (FEA) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who also spoke against the reform. FEA’s president, Andrew Spar, asked: “How can our students ever be equipped for the future if they don’t have a full, honest picture of where we’ve come from?”6, reinforcing Marvin Dunn’s statement that this reform would be teaching lies to students instead of the truth they need. The NAACP’s president, Derrick Johnson stated that “Today’s actions by the Florida state government are an attempt to bring our country back to a 19th century America where Black life was not valued, nor our rights protected. It is imperative that we understand that the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow were a violation of human rights and represent the darkest period in American history,”6 while also reiterating that “Our children deserve nothing less than truth, justice, and the equity our ancestors shed blood, sweat, and tears for.”.6 This once again calls back to the notion that education should teach nothing but the “truth” while also making a very strong statement against the reform, likening it to bringing back the country to the past where slavery was allowed. It also seems to call into question the Floridan government’s intentions on that issue and how they seem to value Black People’s lives.

These statements in protest against the reform, made by different American actors, tend to echo each other on certain points, mainly that education is supposed to be a vector of nothing but facts and truth and that this reform fundamentally goes against this latter notion by falling into revisionism. Of course, it begs the question on  whether or not education can be totally free from the biases of those who teach it. Boards of education and the state itself might also try to whitewash controversial periods of their history. This makes what constitutes the “truth” difficult to fully ascertain.

Florida’s past and Black History and how it affects the present

But where could this interest in rewriting history stem from? A first clue lies in Florida’s particular history and its place in the United States.

Florida used to be a slave state. Marvin Dunn explains in his essay entitled “history of slavery in Florida” that “Slaves in Florida, as elsewhere in the South, were considered by law to be chattel and were owned in the same manner as one owned horses or cows.”7 He also asserts that although laws were in place to prevent cruel and unusual punishment, the fines collected were used by white people, telling us that  it “ is interesting to note that all fines collected for these offenses were paid into the territorial treasury for the use of the literary fund, which, of course, benefited whites only.”7 Another way he illustrates the fact that slaves were very much a commodity in Florida and how they were treated as such is by telling us that “Slaves were kept in the public jail or in “slave pens” until the time of sale. The sale was widely advertised in advance and, as the slaves were presented at auction, bidding was usually lively.”7These examples put into perspective how the people in Florida very much saw the slaves as inferior, though obviously a prevalent sentiment within that era, it is nonetheless illustrative of the reason why today conservatives might aim to whitewash history and minimize the impact of slavery in a state that is historically very conservative and has already tried to rewrite Civil War history before.  Parallels can indeed be drawn with the Daughters of the Confederacy movement which wrote and modified school books so that they would fit the vision of the Lost Cause movement aiming to minimize aspects that would paint the South in a negative light.8 This echoes what Dunn mentioned about how the slaves in Florida were protected by laws that only truly benefited white people.7

Another important notion is that Florida was part of the states that formed the Confederacy during the American Civil War that lasted from 1861 to 1865, fighting against the decision to abolish slavery. They were eventually forced to do so upon their defeat but it clearly was not without a great deal of resistance. 

These historical events show us that Florida was one of those states where feelings toward slavery can still be complicated – what DeSantis said about slaves acquiring valuable skills might be an opinion held by more than one Floridian.
Additionally, in a study published by the Hechinger Report, it is stated that the same curriculum review has been signed in Norfolk, Virginia.9 It should be noted that Virginia was also part of the Confederacy. It is also currently governed by a Republican, Glenn Youngkin. We can see here a pattern where ex-Confederate states tend to elect Republican governors who then sign bills aiming to modify school curricula in order to lessen the effects of slavery. But what exactly are Republicans trying to do when modifying Black history curricula?

A Republican strategy of reclaiming Black history for their own ends?

While looking into reasons why ex-slave states such as Florida and Virginia  would want to rewrite their own version of history, we have not exactly looked into why the Republicans themselves would want the same. The party used to be led by Abraham Lincoln who was notably in favor of ending slavery, which was one of the catalysts of the Civil War; the party itself was also initially formed by anti-slavery Whigs.10

[Abraham Lincoln, three-quarter length portrait, seated and holding his spectacles and a pencil]
Gardner, Alexander, 1821-1882, photographer
[1865 Feb. 5]
ppmsca 19469 https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.19469
Consulted on March 25th 2024

However, in recent history, the party is known as being conservative. In order to understand why Republicans chose to adopt this strategy of modifying the curriculum, I decided to contact an expert on this subject: Marion Douzou, who is an associate professor at University Lyon 2 and a specialist of the Republican party.

I first began by asking how the Republican strategy changed over the years around education, to which she answered that education has always been an important topic in Republican politics and that the focus on the critical race theory11 is just one among the topics that the party now aims to regulate.12 To her, the main goal is to teach a conservative version of history,12 noting that the current motions to change the curriculum stem from a backlash to the New York Time’s 1619 Project. The project meant to establish the arrival of the first slaves in the British colony of Jamestown as the real beginning of American society instead of 1630 when the Mayflower first arrived in America.13 It was heavily criticized by Conservatives and ended up being an important talking point during 2020 election period.14 She also noted that the current situation is one where the losers are rewriting history instead of it being the privilege reserved to the winners. The conservatives who lost the Civil War are now rewriting the slavery narrative. In the end, parallels were also drawn with French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy who tried to minimize the effects of colonization and the controversy over the statues of Colbert who wrote the Code Noir which regulated slavery and punishments for slaves in France under the reign of Louis XIV.15

We can see here that the Republicans are taking control of the narratives around slavery in order to convert more voters into Republicans and provide a version of history that serves their political ends. This raises multiple questions around indoctrination and propaganda, the youth being made to learn a version of history that will make them see slavery as less of an important and long-standing issue than it should be.

But where does this lead Florida and America as a whole in the coming years? We can hazard a few guesses.

 

At the end of my interview with Marion Douzou, we talked a bit about the nature of these current reforms, to which she answered that they are part of the larger culture wars being fought in the USA, such as the controversies over religion and evolution theories before.12

This led to a few questions around the future of Florida in an election year, notably around the radicalization and polarization of both sides of the political spectrum. She concluded that it is likely that the curricula would probably not be reverted back even should another Republican be elected to replace DeSantis.16

We also discussed the hypothetical scenario in which Donald Trump would lose again during the 2024 elections which was concluded by the notion that even this loss would not deter any Republican policies. The USA seems to be heading for a political crisis where neither side will ever budge on their ideas.

Amidst this political turmoil, Florida’s future seems uncertain on many points save for the idea that despite sometimes being seen as a swing state during elections, Florida is likely to remain conservative in the near future.

  1. Kevin Sullivan, Lori Rozsa. July 23, 2023 DeSantis doubles down on claim that some Blacks benefited from slavery []
  2.  Governor DeSantis Announces Legislative Proposal to Stop W.O.K.E. Activism and Critical Race Theory in Schools and Corporations (flgov.com) December 15, 2021 []
  3. Kamala Harris blasts Florida’s new education standards on Black history | GMA (youtube.com) Last consulted on Feb 5th 2024 []
  4. Nicquel Terry Ellis, August 17, 2023. Florida’s new standards on Black history curriculum are creating outrage | CNN []
  5. Nicquel Terry Ellis, August 17, 2023. Florida’s new standards on Black history curriculum are creating outrage | CNN []
  6. SOLCYRÉ BURGA, JULY 20, 2023. Florida Approves Controversial Guidelines for Black History | TIME [] [] []
  7. Marvin Dunn,  https://dunnhistory.com/slavery-in-florida/ [] [] [] []
  8. How Southern socialites rewrote Civil War history (youtube.com) Movement formed in 1894 in Nashville, Tennessee by the descendants of those who were part of the Confederate army. They aimed to celebrate the South by encouraging student essays on the subject and preserving landmarks related to it. They downplayed the circumstances of war by modifying student textbooks to fit their version of history. Closely related to the Lost Cause movement. []
  9. CHRISTINA A. SAMUELS, CAROLINE PRESTON and JAVERIA SALMAN August 7, 2023 How do we teach Black history in polarized times? Here’s what it looks like in 3 cities []
  10. History.com Editors. “Republican Party Founded.” HISTORY, 20 Mar. 2019, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/republican-party-founded. []
  11. Masiga, Juliet. “What Is Critical Race Theory?” World Economic Forum, 10 Feb. 2022, www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/02/what-is-critical-race-theory/. Critical race theory is defined as a framework in which the legacy of slavery and segregation in the US is embedded in modern-day legal systems and policies. []
  12. Private Interview with Marion Douzou, Friday 15th, March 2024 [] [] []
  13. Jake Silverstein, Nov 9, 2021, The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History []
  14. Sarah Ellison, October 2021, How the 1619 Project took over 2020 []
  15. “Le Code Noir | BNF ESSENTIELS.” Gallica.bnf.fr, gallica.bnf.fr/essentiels/anthologie/code-noir. []
  16.   Private Interview with Marion Douzou, Friday 15th, March 2024 []

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
ELSAYED Mazen (8 avril 2024). How the changes in Florida’s Black History curriculum reflect on education as a political battlefield. (Hi)Stories. Consulté le 19 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/11pjf


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