Analysis & Comment

Opinion | One Sentence Does Not Define a Curriculum

There was considerable controversy recently when in Florida, the African American History Standards work group assembled by Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a new social studies and African American curriculum plan. I was uncomfortable with some of the ways this issue was covered by the media. Context got lost, and the agonized tone of the response from many seems to me to have been disproportionate.

The plan was reviled for a passage it contained directing that “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

The response was swift. Most prominently, Vice President Kamala Harris, in a talk to a traditionally Black sorority, said that the work group had “decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery” and that “they insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not stand for it.” Nor did criticism come solely from the left: the Black G.O.P. representatives Byron Donalds and John James, as well as Senator Tim Scott, also decried the implication that slavery was somehow good for Black people.

True to form, DeSantis simply waved the criticism away. Cynical, dismissive and ungentlemanly, DeSantis neither compels nor impresses me overall. I revile the book banning and the antagonism toward changing conceptions of gender identity that he stands for. His peremptory response to a question about the passage was sadly typical: “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.” This is a sensitive issue. A larger figure would at least have addressed it with more thought and consideration.

The passage is certainly ungainly, and it bears editing at least, and probably deletion. My colleague Jamelle Bouie has usefully outlined that any real evidence of slaves “benefiting” from their work skills took place after emancipation, not during it. Moreover, the idea of any kind of benefit gained amid the pitiless horror of slavery is highly strained, creative and almost certainly unnecessary in a curriculum instructing students about this stain on the nation’s past.

However, from the tone of coverage of this passage, one might suppose that it was a central plank in the curriculum. Instead, it was but one passage amid hundreds of others, which constitute an almost exhaustive coverage of the gruesomeness of slavery in the United States. Taken together, they are such an informed recitation of our racist past that it is almost surprising DeSantis would approve them.

Many consider it unwise to condemn someone’s character permanently on the basis of one clumsy tweet. Likewise, judging this curriculum on the basis of a single sentence — a great many of the other passages consist of small paragraphs — means not seeing it whole. Yes, it is a flaw. But does it justify assailing the work group’s efforts as a sinister attempt at “gaslighting” students?

It’s important also to note that the principal purported gaslighter was himself Black. The person responsible for the infamous passage, according to fellow group members, was William Allen. He is an academic and also a Republican, but, as challenging as it can be to perceive this in our times, that party affiliation does not automatically render him suspect on matters of race.

And while Allen’s passage about slavery’s “benefits” did not stand up to historians’ examination, his general politics of self-sufficiency represent a conservative strain of thought that is hardly alien in the Black community, especially within the church. To associate the “benefit” passage primarily with DeSantis, or with a generalized Florida, is inaccurate. The passage was written by a successful Black person committed to the progress of his race. A more constructive debate could be one that highlights the ideological diversity within the Black community.

The idea behind the disproportionate response to this one passage seems to have been that any statement that recalls the way slavery was presented to America’s children until the 1960s — as a benevolent institution whose dissolution subjected the South to unfair punishment — must be decried as a menace that threatens a return to old assumptions. This exemplifies a snag in argumentation that I observe frequently. Too often the idea of the slippery slope is presented as a given, rather than as an assertion requiring evidence. The idea that this one sentence in an otherwise rather ordinary document must be treated as so fearsome implies that we teeter always upon the possibility that students will be taught a vision of slavery out of “Gone With the Wind.”

But I’m not sure I see actual evidence of that, or anything close to it. I certainly do not detect maximal nationwide enlightenment about slavery. But I do perceive that America has become infinitely more informed about slavery than it was 50 years ago. Signature works such as “Roots” (the 1977 original of which was remade seven years ago), “Amistad,” “12 Years a Slave” and others have imprinted the horrors of slavery on the public consciousness in a way that was all but unknown in popular culture before the 1970s. There now exists a massive literature about slavery, both popular and academic, written by both white and Black authors, with key works amply covered in the national press. The widespread adoption of the term “enslaved person” rather than “slave” is testimony itself to the degree to which awareness has changed.

Given that the Florida curriculum proposal overall takes its cue from exactly this seismic change in awareness over its hundreds of directives in more than 200 pages of social studies curriculum, whence the idea that a single sentence threatens to return us to the racist ignorance of the past? To propose such an idea is, in its way, to dismiss the work so many have done to change minds. It also subverts constructive engagement for the theater of politics.

There are, to be sure, other things in the curriculum that also need fixing. It refers to “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans but … not limited to 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, 1919 Washington, D.C., Race Riot, 1920 Ocoee Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre.” The “by” here has justifiably attracted attention, in implying that brutal riots such as those on the list occurred in part because of violence from Black people themselves. That is so nonsensical an idea that I assume the work group is referring to later riots in which Black people committed acts of violence in protest against acts by white vigilantes and/or policemen. And as such, the passage should be fixed. The group was given only a few months to compile the curriculum, and errors like that happen in haste.

But in general, if I had been handed this curriculum before the outcry, my impression would have been that it was going to offend the anti-woke crusaders of the right, not critics on the left. It is such a standard-issue coverage of what slavery was that it is, again, almost surprising that Ron DeSantis would want it to go out under his name. I would have processed that single “benefit” sentence as a tip of the hat to an idea, hardly uncommon among Black people thinking about our history, that even slaves exercised a degree of agency and human strength amid the horror of the condition imposed upon them.

And because it is just one sentence, I would have simply read on.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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