Nearly 190 years before Florida education officials announced that schoolchildren would be taught that slavery was akin to a job training program for Black people, John C. Calhoun, a virulently racist, slaveholding former vice president and US senator from South Carolina, extolled what he claimed were the virtues of human bondage in a speech before Congress in 1837.
“Never before has the Black race of central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually,’’ he said. Slavery, Calhoun said, was not “an evil’’ but what he called “a positive good.’’
There has never been a time in American history — including more than a century before this stolen land was established as a new nation — when white supremacists haven’t tried to rehabilitate and defend the torture, subjugation, and enslavement of Black people.
Slavery in America is white supremacy’s greatest crime against humanity. And part of its warped legacy is the relentless attempted cover-up of a heinous crime that lasted for 246 years — and, through entrenched, systemic racism, still claims lives to this day.
But that’s not what Florida’s children will learn under the state’s new academic standards for African American history. What middle school students will be taught is “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.’’
“How is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities that there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?’’ Vice President Kamala Harris said during a speech on July 21 in Jacksonville, Fla. She added, “They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us and we will not have it.’’
Call Florida’s school curriculum on Black history what it is — a mendacious white nationalist hagiography fostered by the racist, ahistorical, anti-education policies of Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican candidate for president. The undying lie that Black people gained some “personal benefit’’ from slavery is the kind of blatant revisionism that’s a gateway to denialism of America’s original sin.
In his seminal book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,’’ Ibram X. Kendi, founder and director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, writes, “Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.’’
But what Florida’s Republican-led education department has done is even more insidious. Within the falsehood that enslavement gave some Black people applicable skills lives a poisonous idea — that Africans forcibly brought to this land, and their descendants, were uncultured savages without expertise or knowledge who were tamed by hard work, Christianity, and white benevolence. Its villainy twisted into magnanimity and those who profited from slavery anointed as rescuers of a desolate people. This was the root of the lie used to justify Black enslavement.
That’s what Calhoun meant when he claimed Black people became “so civilized and so improved,’’ as if chattel slavery was some kind of finishing school. White supremacy disrupted not just families and communities in Africa but long-established cultures, enterprise, and ingenuity. But Florida middle schoolers won’t be learning anything about that.
In a statement, Andrew Spar, Florida Education Association president, said, “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? [Governor] DeSantis is pursuing a political agenda guaranteed to set good people against one another, and in the process he’s cheating our kids. They deserve the full truth of American history, the good and the bad.’’
DeSantis has spent an excessive amount of time attacking books, critical race theory, and the LGBTQ community, especially trans youth — none of which seem to be boosting his flagging White House aspirations. He has tried to distance himself from this disgusting curriculum benchmark, but his hateful policies, including his “Stop WOKE Act,’’ opened a new path for this both-sides approach to misinforming children about not just slavery but their country.
There was no “personal benefit’’ for enslaved Black people. None. There’s only a centuries-long urgency to vindicate the horrors of slavery and absolve white supremacy. Florida education officials have ripped a chapter from Calhoun’s silver linings guide to slavery, which is as old and nearly as vile as the atrocity itself. And this intentional revision of facts will continue toward its ultimate goal — a devastating erasure of truth.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.
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