The Real Problems with Florida Teaching About the “Benefits” of Slavery

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State educational standards for middle school social studies do not often make national news. Yet Vice President Kamala Harris recently gave a speech criticizing Florida for using such standards to promote the view “that enslaved people benefited from slavery.”

Wait, what? Can that be true? If, as Governor Ron DeSantis has boasted, “Florida is where woke goes to die,” does it now count as “woke” to say that slavery was, you know, bad for the people who were enslaved?

At over 200 pages in length, the official document in question sets out standards of instruction in various “strands” of social studies, including African American history. Parts of the document are sensible. It says that students should be taught age-appropriate information about the emergence of racialized slavery in colonial America, the contributions of African Americans to science, the arts, politics, and other fields, their agency in the struggle against slavery, and various major historical events.

The provision Vice President Harris critiqued can be found in a grades-six-through-eight standard titled “Analyze events that involved or affected Africans from the founding of the nation through Reconstruction.” It lists the Northwest Ordinance, the outlawing of the international slave trade in 1808, and invention of the cotton gin. One might quibble that these events affected African Americans more than they affected Africans, but at least they are clearly part of a responsible middle school curriculum.

The standards take an odd turn, however, when they state: “Examine the various duties performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).” There then appears a “benchmark clarification”: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Or in other words, the standards say that at least “in some instances” enslaved people benefited from slavery, just as Vice President Harris noted.

For his part, when asked, Governor DeSantis said that he was not involved with the creation of the standards. That is probably literally true, although DeSantis appointed various members of the Board and, more generally, has made culture war issues involving education a centerpiece of his anti-woke agenda.

Moreover, in the same breath, DeSantis defended the obligation to instruct middle schoolers on the beneficial side effects of enslavement. He said that teachers would “show that some of the folks eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.” He further asserted that “all of that is rooted in whatever is factual . . . .”

Selecting Facts

What kind of a defense is that? It is surely true that enslaved persons learned skills in the course of performing the tasks they were obligated to perform on penalty of the lash or worse. And some number of them might have even “parlayed” some of those skills into activities for their own benefit—at least if they lived long enough to be emancipated and were not then subject to de facto near-re-enslavement, as many freedpersons were pursuant to post-Civil War “Black Codes” enacted throughout the South, including Florida in 1866.

But even supposing the statement that some enslaved persons acquired skills through enslavement that they were able to apply “for their personal benefit” “is factual” in the sense that it is not false, that hardly justifies including the proposition in a list of things to cover in a history curriculum. One could make a virtually unlimited number of assertions that are factual. Here are a few:

(1) Although slavery existed in Florida under Spanish rule, the region was also a haven for persons escaping slavery in the English colonies and later the United States, so its acquisition by and then entry into the Union greatly worsened conditions for African Americans in Florida.

(2) Florida-based slave trader Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. fathered numerous children via teenagers whom he enslaved; he defended these actions with Biblical references.

(3) At the time of George Washington’s death in 1799, 317 people were enslaved at his Mount Vernon estate.

(4) Ron DeSantis has sometimes pronounced his name “Dee-Santis” and other times pronounced it “Deh-Santis.”

(5) Apparently, DeSantis also deliberately mispronounced “Thai” as “thigh” in order to screen out potential girlfriends who might correct him.

Of the foregoing factual propositions, (1) through (3) seem plainly relevant to a curriculum in African American history, although (2) might be more suitable for middle schoolers and high school students than for very young elementary students, whereas the precise number set forth in (3) does not have any special significance. Meanwhile, propositions (4) and (5) are plainly irrelevant to African American history or any sort of curriculum. To belabor an obvious point, factual accuracy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for inclusion in a curriculum.

Nor is subject-matter relevance sufficient to make a factually accurate proposition part of the curriculum. There are, after all, a virtually limitless number of factually accurate propositions about slavery in Florida (or any other topic). Names and dates of key life events of the thousands of enslavers and enslaved persons may hold importance (at least for a time) for the people themselves and their families, but they have no broader significance that warrants teaching any of them to every middle schooler in the state.

Causation Versus Justification

What, then, is the significance of the proposition that some enslaved persons used some of the skills they acquired by being forced to labor for others “for their personal benefit”? Without more from the Floridians who wrote the standards, it is difficult to know, but none of the likely explanations is remotely satisfactory.

Viewed most charitably, we might think that the “benchmark clarification” about personal benefits fits with an approach to history that sees enslaved persons not merely as passive victims of a grave injustice but as agents who imbued their lives with meaning and played an active role in the struggle to end their own oppression. Some of the Florida standards take this approach. For example, both the fifth grade and middle school standards emphasize the role formerly enslaved persons and other free Blacks played in directing the Underground Railroad.

Yet there is nothing in the standards themselves that puts that favorable gloss on the “personal benefit” statement. Rather, on its face—and as some middle school social studies teachers will probably read it—the state aims to instruct students that, notwithstanding the harms of slavery, the institution had an upside. However, that is a monstrous claim.

Indeed, it is hardly clear that the ostensible upside is an upside. Suppose that as a consequence of being enslaved and forced to work as a field hand, a man learns skills of cultivation that, following emancipation, he is able to apply—to “parlay” in the words of Governor DeSantis—as a sharecropper. As a result of the work he was forced to do while enslaved, he is a better farmer than he would have been had he never been enslaved, but that hardly means he has derived any benefit. Had he not been enslaved at all, he might have developed other, more remunerative, skills.

Even if we imagine a genuine benefit, the Florida standard is grotesque. My father-in-law and mother-in-law were Holocaust survivors. If not for Hitler, they would not have left Europe, I would not have met my wife, and thus my daughter would not exist. Does this mean that my daughter derived a benefit from the Holocaust?

Philosophers treat such questions as raising the so-called nonidentity problem, because most people have a strong intuition that it would be a moral error to say that a historical injustice that is a necessary condition for a person’s existence is, ipso facto, a benefit. But even if we say that the descendants of victims of historical injustices are therefore beneficiaries of the injustices, surely one cannot say the same thing about the direct victims of enslavement or genocide. Even to speak of beneficial side effects of a gross injustice is to express disrespect.

* * *

In calling out the new Florida education standards, Vice President Harris described “an attempt to gaslight us”—that is, to deny obvious truths. She may have given too much credit. The point of gaslighting is to drive people who know the truth crazy, but that is not the only reason people tell big lies. They also do so to gain, consolidate, or exercise power.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, protagonist Winston Smith grimly reflects on the Party slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Even if he plays only an indirect role in creating Florida’s education standards, Governor DeSantis views them likewise in instrumental terms. Minimizing the horror of slavery or inviting bullying of LGBTQ youths enables DeSantis and the base of the Trumpist Republican Party whose cultural resentments he inflames to flex their muscles. He defended the claim that slavery sometimes benefited enslaved persons by calling it “factual,” but truth or falsity is entirely beside the point. Florida is where truth goes to die.

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Tags: Florida, slavery

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