Facing History and Ourselves has a mission statement which seems not just sensible but indisputable. “To build a more just and equitable future,” it posits, “we must face our history in all its complexity.”
President Gerald Ford first recognized February as Black History Month, urging Americans to “honor the too-often-neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Of course, Black American history is not only the history of high achievement. It is the history of slavery, America’s original sin, and the injustice, struggles, triumphs, movements and voices that are all part of the Black experience, and America’s.
The theme of Black History Month this year is “Black Resistance.” The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Black History Month’s founders, explain why. “African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms and police killings since our arrival upon these shores,” ASALH writes. “These efforts have been to advocate for a dignified, self-determined life in a just democratic society in the United States.” For many white Americans, words like these are difficult to hear, but also difficult to deny.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is doing his best to control what students in his state learn about Black history, seeking to dictate a sanitized version of history more palatable to white conservatives’ ears than, say, the real thing. He has marked Black History Month by vetoing the non-profit College Board’s proposal to give Florida students the opportunity to take an Advanced Placement course in African American Studies: “The content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” If this sounds like balderdash, it’s because it is: the course, developed over years by serious historians, encompasses such evidently verboten topics as slavery’s legacy, systemic racism and the emergence of Black Lives Matter. That is what makes it impermissible. DeSantis, who castigates state mandates on vaccines to safeguard Floridians from lethal diseases, is pleased to mandate what they can learn about history and what they can’t.
Founded in 1955, the College Board has offered Advanced Placement courses in European history, German history and Chinese history. There will not, however, be an Advanced Placement course offered in Florida in Black American history because the Governor doesn’t approve of the curriculum.
Deficient in their knowledge of our country’s history generally, Americans are particularly ignorant of African American history, and they know it. According to a Quinnipiac University poll taken last year, only 27% of Americans say the history they were taught in school provided a full, accurate account of African Americans’ role in that history. “Removed from the classroom, two-thirds of Americans look back and say they were not taught enough about the struggle and the triumphs of African Americans,” Quinnipiac polling analyst Tim Malloy told the Alabama Political Reporter.
Against that backdrop, the class which DeSantis has vetoed would have given qualified high school students the chance to study African American history on a university level and have incentivized them to do so for college credit. It would have promoted continued studies in the subject at university and it would have encouraged some of those taking the class to go on and teach the subject to others. It would have stimulated middle school and high school students to open books that will remain closed on a crucial aspect of our nation’s history. At its core, Christopher Tinson, Chair of African American Studies at Saint Louis University, told National Public Radio, “the reason why this is even an important area of study is because of the historical erasures from historical records in public schools of African experiences.”
This is an erudite way of saying the following: White Americans know next to nothing about Black history, and Black Americans are often frozen out of meaningful opportunities to learn about their own place in America. Ron DeSantis is more than happy to have it stay that way.
Jeff Robbins is a Boston lawyer and former U.S. delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.