No. 2

If “Woke” Dies, Our Nation’s Truths Die with It

Ron DeSantis wants to retrofit history to conform to conservative ideology.

Tera W. Hunter

Formerly enslaved people sit at Foller’s House in Cumberland Landing, Va., 1862. Photograph by Fotosearch/Getty Images.

“My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings,” the educator Booker T. Washington recalled of his childhood in slavery in his autobiography, “Up From Slavery.” He described animal-like treatment of enslaved people enduring crude living conditions and recounted being subjected to a tough labor regime even as a child. When slavery was finally abolished in the United States in 1865, he was 9 and illiterate. But supporters of the “anti-woke” education agenda of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida have adopted Washington as an exemplar of a person who parlayed skills learned under slavery for his “personal benefit.” This is not just a rhetorical political game but an actual claim made about slavery that students will learn in the state’s new African American history curriculum.

This flagrant distortion of the historical record reinforces the dangers of DeSantis’s ambitions to make Florida the place where “woke goes to die,” which means retrofitting stories from the past to conform to conservative ideology. DeSantis has fulfilled his pledge by passing a panoply of state policies, including banning books in public schools and censoring what teachers can say in classrooms from primary schools through public universities. He effectively rejected the College Board’s new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies because he claimed it was nothing more than left-wing indoctrination. And now he is advancing substitute products that no one should be surprised will conform to his decrees.

Florida mandated the teaching of African American history in grades K-12 in 1994, although a survey conducted by the state’s African American History Task Force six years later revealed that “there is no systematic integration of African American history in the curriculum in public schools.” There was hardly a concerted effort to enforce the mandate. In 2021, the task force revised the curriculum in a resource guide to help teachers and administrators design lesson plans to improve the implementation of the mandate in every district. This guide offered a robust road map for basic instruction in African American history. But DeSantis made it defunct a year later by signing what’s known as the Stop WOKE Act.

The act requires revising the teaching of African American history. It is designed to curtail speech in the workplace and schools to prevent (white) people from feeling “psychological distress” or discomfort by being made to feel guilt, anguish, or responsibility for historical wrongdoings committed by persons of their own race. It bars any teaching that suggests a person’s status as “privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.” Any instruction that counters these dictates is considered discrimination.

On August 19, 2022, the state’s Department of Education issued a call for individuals to apply to become members of an African American History Standards Workgroup (not the task force that was recently updated with a majority of Republican appointees) to revise standards for teaching African American history to conform to the new act. It “encouraged” applicants to have at least one of the following qualifications: “Hold a Florida Educator Certificate in 6-12 social science or Elementary education K-6; be a school lead history teacher or a district staff member with experience working in social science or elementary education; or have experience teaching African American history and working with Florida’s social studies standards related to African American history.” The group’s 13 members began work intermittently over the internet from February through May 2023 to generate a 216-page document with revised standards. They did not consult with members of the African American History Task Force during their deliberations. When that report was released to the public, it became the center of controversy because it reflects the “anti-woke” agenda that DeSantis continues to deliver.

One benchmark mandated by the new standards focuses on the enslaved labor used in agricultural, domestic, and various artisanal trades. A one-sentence “clarification” has raised eyebrows across the political spectrum, from Vice President Kamala Harris to Representative Byron Donalds of Florida and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Anyone who spends time on social media can easily recognize the common reactionary trope, an apologia for slavery that emphasizes its “silver linings” and an enduring reprise of classic antebellum proslavery arguments that rationalized slavery as a “positive good.”

Two members of the workgroup have been vocal in defending the new standards: William B. Allen, a retired Michigan State University political science professor, and Frances Presley Rice, a former lawyer and U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. Neither Allen nor Presley Rice appears to meet the qualifications for serving on the workgroup (based on publicly available information), though the other members appear to be experienced K-12 educators. They co-wrote a statement claiming “the new standards provide comprehensive and rigorous instruction on African American History.” Yet their statement is riddled with egregious errors and false claims. They listed 16 people, including Booker T. Washington, who they stated had learned specialized trades while under slavery. Most on the list were free-born and never enslaved. Many of the trades associated with them were identified incorrectly. Paul Cuffe and James Forten, for example, were not shoemakers, but a prominent free-born whaler and shipping magnate and a sailmaker, respectively. They included, astonishingly, Betty Washington Lewis, President George Washington’s (white) sister and an enslaver herself.

Can these errors be explained by cut-and-paste sloppiness, ignorance of basic history, or a deliberate attempt to conflate and confuse assertions they cannot sustain? It’s not clear, although they have yet to correct the record in response to criticism. What matters is that these people set guidelines for teaching schoolchildren in one of the nation’s largest states. A spectacular level of educational malpractice is being passed off as legitimate scholarship. After the statement received negative press, some members of the workgroup distanced themselves from the language about the personal benefits of slavery and put the blame on Allen and Presley Rice. At least two members suggested that the process was “rushed.” They have not repudiated the rest of the report, however, which is also problematic.

Allen and Presley Rice claim the insistence on skills-building ensures that slaves are not reduced to mere victims and shows that they were resilient and courageous. Those are appropriate and essential educational objectives and nothing new to the African American studies curriculum. Professional historians have written about such characteristics for decades, and many conscientious educators have long incorporated them into their lessons. But that’s not what the 216-page document says, and there is no way that teachers can discern these aims from the standards as written.

Eight children stand near a man and a woman in a cotton field with large baskets of cotton before them near Savannah, Ga., part of a stereograph by O. Pierre Havens, circa 1880. Photograph by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

Slavery in the United States and throughout the Atlantic world was a permanent, inheritable condition, which made the system distinctive from bondage in earlier times and places. Most enslaved people and their heirs never escaped perpetual life terms in a system that lasted nearly two and a half centuries. And the routes to freedom narrowed over time, especially after abolition in the North and following the American Revolution, when slavery expanded in the South with the rise of the cotton kingdom. Slavery was a violent system of labor exploitation. Enslavers monopolized the skills of their human captives for their personal benefit, not for the benefit of those enslaved. Most were common fieldhands whose contributions, to be sure, built the wealth of owners and stimulated the nation’s economy. But they were never allowed to keep the fruits of their labors. Laws designed to prevent them from learning basic literacy skills also preempted their abilities to advance beyond their subjugated status.

It is true that enslaved people often found ways to resist complete and utter degradation, and some of the most privileged struck bargains with enslavers that allowed them to keep a small portion of their earnings or carve out other nooks of autonomy. Explaining this requires nuance, however, in order to convey complexities to students without depicting slavery as a benign institution or a temporary way station that culminated in happy endings. There is little in the revised curriculum standards to help teachers make that leap. And Allen, the most vocal proponent, has rejected even mild suggestions that the standards could be further clarified to reflect what he claims are its larger aims.

The problems with the revised standards, colored by the peculiarities of the Stop WOKE Act, go beyond one sentence about the personal benefits of slavery. The previous curricular guidelines were fine, but the workgroup threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. It is setting students up for failure to acquire a basic understanding of African American history, and they will not be equipped as students headed to college or as informed citizens regardless of their future educational pursuits.

Let’s look at how the history of the slavery era is covered. If a central objective of the curriculum is to amplify African Americans as skilled, three-dimensional humans, a good place to start would be prior to their arrival in the American colonies. But the standards say almost nothing about societies in West Africa and West Central Africa beyond the fact that they practiced their own forms of slavery and were “reciprocal” partners in the Atlantic slave trade, which they were not. What about the skills Africans brought with them as agriculturalists, blacksmiths, dressmakers, ironmakers, basket weavers, musicians, woodworkers, equestrians, poets, linguists, and intellectuals, many of which made them attractive for enslavement? What about the varieties of cultures, languages, aesthetic practices, and religious beliefs? Such necessary background helps students to understand the sources of strength, resiliency, and courage that enslaved people later drew on and passed on to their heirs. This was a vital part of the previous so-called woke curriculum that the “anti-woke” revisions have eliminated.

The new standards focus disproportionate attention on how Europeans suffered under serfdom, servitude, and slavery. A section is devoted to the Barbary pirates, who kidnapped Europeans and sold them to “Muslim countries” — again, as part of the African American history curriculum. European indentured servitude in the American colonies is discussed repeatedly from grades 6 through 12 — an exploitative system for sure, but not the same as slavery. Slavery in Europe, Asia, and Africa are featured frequently. All of this reinforces another popular trope: the enslavement of Black people in the United States is insignificant because slavery was everywhere and white people were slaves, too. This is one step removed from popular myths about the “Irish slave trade” in the U.S. While comparisons are informative, it is more pertinent to explain the origins, purposes, and distinctiveness of slavery in the overarching Atlantic system and how the various colonies in North and South America differed — but that gets little attention.

The restrictions that the Stop WOKE Act imposes on the curriculum have generated a gaping hole. Who were the enslavers in the U.S.? How widely was slavery supported by people other than enslavers? What motivated them? How did this shape and sustain a thriving system for over two centuries? The curriculum never broaches these questions outright; instead passive constructions elide culpability and treat economic behaviors in the abstract, devoid of human motivations and consequences. The curriculum points to “the desire for knowledge of land cultivation” or the “rise in the production of tobacco and rice,” diminishing the human agency that drove the desire for African labor in the colonies. And how did slavery influence American capitalism, politics, legal institutions, and culture? Few imprints on the larger society are named or explained beyond the treatment of African Americans. Slavery did something to Black people, but everyone and everything else appear untouched.

This implicit framing adheres to the Stop WOKE Act, which discourages identifying people from the past with actual racism in a way that might offend people today. This also explains why there is far more attention to antislavery than to pro-slavery acts and ideas. While the new standards attend to all the forms of slave resistance and the formation of interracial antislavery alliances, students will receive the impression that nearly everyone was against slavery. The standards parrot the falsehoods that George Washington participated in the “quest to end slavery” and that “members of the Continental Congress made attempts to end or limit slavery” (as evident in a deleted passage in a draft of the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson). Washington and Jefferson lived and died as some of the wealthiest enslavers of their time. Abraham Lincoln is identified as an “abolitionist leader,” although he claimed no such thing. The standards explicitly name just one enslaver: Anthony Johnson, an African who rose from slavery to become one of the most exceptional individuals in early America. A member of a minuscule minority.

The distorted depictions of the founding era continue by mentioning only the African Americans who fought on the side of the patriots (the American colonists) during the Revolutionary War but omit that most fought on the side of the loyalists (the British). Inadequate treatment of how African Americans both embraced and critiqued the founding documents is a missed opportunity to wrestle with their long-lasting engagement with the nation’s most august intellectual thought and politics.

It is bad enough that the two most vocal members of the workgroup issued an error-filled statement to counter criticism. Conservatives have amplified their defense and used race (Allen and Presley Rice are Black) as if it were a credential to substitute for their lack of expertise. But it is stunning to see the “liberal” media accept the statement, ignore the political context in which their work has been fashioned, and compound the factual lapses with additional misinterpretations. On July 27, NPR host Steve Inskeep interviewed Allen about the controversial statement. “I think the sentence explains itself. Its grammar is certainly perfectly clear when refers to the fact that those who were held in slavery possess skills,” Allen stated, adding, “whether they developed them before being held in slavery, while being held in slavery, or subsequently to being held in slavery” — a disclaimer that was not in the original standards or in the defense he co-wrote with Presley Rice. Leaving aside the obvious fact that the original sentence is not self-explanatory, this addendum was clearly a disingenuous flourish, but Inskeep quickly agreed that of course enslaved people had skills that accrued personal benefits. He offered his own example, the movie 12 Years a Slave, which depicts the kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup, a professional violinist. Inskeep did not mention that Northup developed his skills as a musician before his capture, not because of his enslavement. Many appalled listeners criticized Inskeep on (what was then) Twitter, but he denied making any error. Such misinformation about African American history spirals into conspiracy theories.

An advertisement posted by enslaver William F. Talbott of Lexington, Ky,
wanting to buy “Negroes” for $1,200 to $1,250 each for the New
Orleans Market. Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

It remains to be seen how the standards for African American history will be implemented in classrooms throughout Florida. But educational officials and private interest groups have already censored materials that teachers will use for civics and social studies courses, foregrounding the ideological viewpoints I have highlighted here. The New York Times reported that earlier this year “a small army of state experts, teachers, parents and political activists” has combed through textbooks to find violations of “woke indoctrination” to satisfy the DeSantis agenda. The Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative organization co-founded by members of DeSantis’s education advisory team after he was elected governor, urged the state to reject 28 out of 38 textbooks from major publishers that its volunteers objected to for reasons such as slavery was mentioned too often and depictions of the negative treatment of Native Americans were too lopsided and needed to be balanced with attention to their violence against Europeans. Publishers have also started to offer what they think state officials want by editing existing texts. One company decided to revise the story about Rosa Parks by eliminating racial segregation as an explanation for why she refused to give up her seat. She was reduced to just a tired lady.

PragerU, the conservative nonprofit organization posing as an (unaccredited) academic institution, recently announced that the Florida Department of Education will be the first state to adopt its lesson plans. The company was founded in 2009 by radio host Dennis Prager, known for making anti-Semitic, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant statements. He complained on his program a few years ago that “the left has made it impossible to say the N-word any longer. That’s disgusting, it’s a farce. It’s the only word that you can’t say in the English language.” The company proclaims its political objectives by selling “PragerU Kids” material as “content for your child’s mind to fight the leftist lies.” It specializes in short videos espousing extreme-right opinions on controversial topics. These blunt instruments are wildly popular and persuasive, attracting millions of hits on the PragerU website, watched mainly by people under age 35.

What might schoolkids in Florida expect to learn from such material? Some videos are hosted by conservative talking heads, such as Candace Owens, a Black woman, stating that “slavery was not invented by white people” and “no one, regardless of skin color, stands guiltless.” In one animated video aimed at kids, Christopher Columbus proclaims that slavery was “no big deal,” that it was “old as time,” and “being taken as a slave is better than being killed, no?” Frederick Douglass makes an appearance in the “Leo & Layla” series to rationalize slavery as a “compromise” that the founding fathers made to achieve something greater and takes a dig at his former friend William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist who refused any such compromise, demanded immediate change, and who “set things on fire” if he didn’t “get what he want[ed].” Leo and Layla chime in: “Sounds familiar.” “Sounds like you know the type,” Douglass says. “Yeah, we’ve got that type in our time,” the kids say, zinging the Black Lives Matter movement. And then Booker T. Washington says, “I am still so proud and thankful to be an American.” Layla asks, “Even though you were a slave?” Washington replies, “Exactly — because I was and not anymore.”

It is not surprising that Booker T. Washington is a conservative darling. He was an originator of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach to Black advancement, after all. But Washington’s memoir does not depict the slavery he experienced in the apologetic terms that conservatives have adopted. He discussed in detail the miserable, hellish conditions, living in a small cabin without proper windows, sleeping on dirt floors on top of rags, and transporting by foot tons of corn to be milled three miles from his home plantation every day. He would later become the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black college, and one of the most renowned African American leaders of his generation. His life story is inspirational and offers ready-made stories that schools across the nation embrace for their curriculum. Was he resilient? Absolutely, but despite slavery, not because it was the “school of civilization” that pro-slavery advocates long maintained it was.

The multiple ways the Florida standards “both sides” American slavery reflect the conservative political agenda’s minimization of the role of racism in our history and today’s society. Slavery has always been a kink in the armor of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has always been a representative democracy founded on universal principles of liberty and equality that made the country uniquely virtuous and worthy of emulation. The nation’s founding is less sanguine when you consider the colonization, genocide, and slavery that made its creation possible. It is less idyllic when you acknowledge that not everyone came voluntarily to this experiment. A sizable number were forced out of Africa and coerced to reproduce so that Europeans could extract their labor, multiply their bodies to build colonies, and reap wealth. But if you can reduce slavery to an insignificant blip on the nation’s path toward eternal greatness, it is much easier to misname, ignore, or downplay persistent racial disparities in education, health care, employment, and the criminal justice system — institutions that have been marred by racism from the slavery era to today. We have made tremendous progress over time, but the legacies of slavery are resilient because we the people resist fully reckoning with their effects.

“One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over,” the historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction in America. We cannot just remember the things we “regard as creditable and inspiring,” he continued. “The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.” Students in Florida are at risk of being saddled with retrograde ideas long propagated by slavery apologists, which Du Bois referred to as “the propaganda of history.” But the rest of the country also needs to take note, because DeSantis wants to spread the gospel beyond Florida so that the whole country becomes a place where “woke goes to die” and along with it our nation’s truths.

Tera W. Hunter is a professor of American history and African American studies at Princeton.

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