Behind the Right’s Frenzied Defense of Florida’s Slavery Curriculum

Behind the Right’s Frenzied Defense of Florida’s Slavery Curriculum

Behind the Right’s Frenzied Defense of Florida’s Slavery Curriculum

DeSantis and Fox blowhards are howling at critics who deny the enslaved got “personal benefit” from slavery. A hit dog will holler.


Let’s stipulate right away: Florida’s new guidelines for teaching African American history do not merely consist of the noxious, specious claim that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” There are 190 other “facts” included in the guidelines, and arguably none are as false and loathsome as that one (though a few come close).

What’s telling, though, is how hard the right is fighting back against critics attacking the outrageous “personal benefit” claim. Governor Ron DeSantis, who likes to brag about his “Stop WOKE” education bill, seemed at first to distance himself, perhaps because his presidential bid is circling the drain at least partly because voters are repelled by his culture-war histrionics.

DeSantis literally snorted when asked about Vice President Kamala Harris’s claim that the Florida guidelines “want to replace history with lies,” then quickly added, “I wasn’t involved,” crediting his handpicked, all-white Florida Board of Education. But he leaned into the claim nonetheless. “They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life. But the reality is, all of that is rooted in whatever is factual.”

You know? No, I don’t know, governor, and neither does anyone else. “Parlayed” is a particularly cruel world. The enslaved didn’t have the power to “parlay” any skills they may have acquired into opportunity; they were property, not entrepreneurs. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson refuted DeSantis’s claim with his own enslaved great-great-grandfather’s history: He did, in fact, work as a blacksmith. “But he had no ability to ‘parlay’ anything, because his time and labor were not his own,” Robinson wrote. “They belonged to his enslaver. He belonged to his enslaver.” He was sold, like a piece of livestock, at least twice.

In fact, the Tampa Bay Times found that of the 16 examples the state produced of formerly enslaved people “parlaying” their master-taught skills into jobs later in life, few fit that description. They were either already free Black people, or they learned skills after escaping slavery, or they never were slaves at all. My favorite: Betty Washington Lewis, who was never a slave but was President George Washington’s younger sister, who herself owned slaves. Another prominent example: educator Booker T. Washington. But Washington became free as a child, and worked numerous jobs to put himself through school. The paper also revealed that the leader of the group that wrote the guidelines is the head of the National Black Republican Association.

Fox has. of course. gone crazy over the story. The right is particularly incensed that Harris went to Florida on Friday to excoriate the standards personally. All day Monday, the network covered National Review writer Charles C.W. Cooke’s jeremiad against the vice president, headlined “Kamala Harris Is Brazenly Lying About Florida’s Slavery Curriculum.” Someone might have warned Cooke that “brazen” is a particularly gendered term of insult, going back to Jezebel, but I doubt he would care. Cooke has made a niche for himself mocking Harris, for “vapidity” and her voice, but she really enraged him with her attack on Florida’s slavery curriculum as a form of “gaslighting.”

“This is a brazen lie,” Cooke huffed. “It’s an astonishing lie. It’s an evil lie. It is so untrue—so deliberately and cynically misleading—that, in a sensible political culture, Harris would be obligated to issue an apology.” Cooke’s proof for his hysterical claims? That some of the other 190 facts outlined in the curriculum in fact discuss the violence and cruelty of slavery. But he doesn’t say anything’s wrong with the “personal benefits” claim—in fact, he terms it “correct.”

At regular intervals on Monday, Fox featured a chyron denouncing Harris’s “evil lie.” Noted historian Jesse Watters—OK, kidding, he’s the goofball who succeeded Tucker Carlson when the disgraced host was fired—declared pompously: “This is historical fact, that slaves did develop skills while they were enslaved and then used those skills as blacksmiths, in agriculture, tailoring, in the shipping business, to benefit themselves and their families.”

So what’s the truth? It’s not that Harris is an evil liar, that much we know. Slavery has long been presented, by its defenders, as somehow of “benefit” to the enslaved. In 1837, notorious pro-slavery South Carolina Senator John Calhoun (himself a former vice president) gave a famous speech, “Slavery a Positive Good,” in which he declared, “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.” (Department of self promotion: That quote, and others like it, comes from a new book I’ve coauthored with Nick Hanauer and Donald Cohen, Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power and Wealth in America, which will be published by The New Press in September. You can preorder it here.)

While the Florida guidelines emphasize the teaching of “the trades of slaves (e.g., musicians, healers, blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, weavers, tailors, sawyers, hostlers, silversmiths, cobblers, wheelwrights, wigmakers, milliners, painters, coopers),” almost “all of [Florida’s] slaves (98 percent) were involved in agricultural labor,” according to a 2010 article in Florida Humanities magazine, most of which was not skill-building but back-breaking.

The guidelines also ignore the fact that many enslaved Africans arrived on these shores with advanced skills of their own. “They already knew how to measure, irrigate, sail, forge, read, write, translate, mine, weave, build, cook, harvest, heal and create,” The Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell writes. Slave-traders from various Southern states actually traveled to different parts of Africa to target cultures where residents had skills that could advance local plantations.

There is, predictably, a lot of false equivalence in the rest of the guidelines. Teachers are to explore “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans” (emphasis added), listing a handful of race riots that were clearly instigated by whites, in which almost all victims were black. There are multiple “teachings” devoted to the fact that “slavery was utilized in Asian, European, and African cultures,” “among indigenous peoples of the Americas,” while emphasizing “systematic slave trading in Africa.” The guidelines claim that the first Africans on these shores came, like white laborers, as “indentured servants.” There’s debate over that claim: We know that slave codes from the early 17th century made clear that whites could earn their freedom, customarily after seven years, but Blacks never could.

The takeaway from the Florida guidelines is that every culture enslaved people at some point, that Africans enslaved other Africans, that whites have at times been enslaved, that Indigenous Americans practiced slavery before Europeans even got here—all the while playing down the peculiarly rigid, race-based, intergenerational, and violence-enforced institution that emerged in the United States.

“Taken together,” historian Heather Cox Richardson concludes, “this curriculum presents human enslavement as simply one of a number of labor systems, a system that does not, in this telling, involve racism or violence.” It also attributes, she notes, the uneven movement from enslavement to freedom, still not complete, to “the principles contained in foundational documents,” while promoting the notion that “liberty and economic freedom generate broad-based opportunity and prosperity in the United States.” It emphasizes the actions of white abolitionists and political leaders over the resistance of Black people themselves.

Again, the guidelines aren’t uniformly wrong or twisted. But they feature so many distortions and omissions that consulting the entire document, as National Review’s Cooke demands, shows that highlighting the alleged “personal benefits” that some of the enslaved allegedly derived from slavery isn’t cherry-picking one measly tin-eared statement, but pointing to a tapestry of indoctrination designed to make American slavery seem less uniquely brutal than it was.

The bottom line of DeSantis’s “Stop Woke Act” is to squash all teaching on race that might lead a white child to believe she or he “bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress.” That’s the highest priority of many of these measures, in other states too: In South Carolina, students got Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World And Me banned from their Advanced Placement language course because, in the words of one, “I actually felt ashamed to be Caucasian.” Of course we can’t have that, especially in the South.

That’s why Florida will now teach a sanitized version of Black history, showing that while slavery was, OK, not good; it was practiced widely; it provided some benefits to its victims; and it was unraveled largely by the principles handed down by the American founders, many of whom either supported slavery or owned slaves themselves. And hey, if everybody did it, why should white Americans feel bad about it? DeSantis almost makes me ashamed to be Caucasian.

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