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Relating Black History without History

Shackles used to bind slaves on display at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La., in 2015. (Edmund Fountain/Reuters)

Critics of Florida’s African-American history curriculum willfully misunderstand it.

The advent of a stand-alone curriculum in African-American history for the very first time in Florida or any state has attracted a firestorm of distortion and outrage. Most notably, Vice President Kamala Harris sounded
the rejectionist trumpet and was promptly echoed by agitprop battalions
throughout the country. Harris was followed by the speciously serious
discussion provided by historian Heather Cox Richardson in her Substack Letters from an American.
Where Harris’s initial comment was refuted by the very grammar of the
supposedly offensive sentence, Richardson obligingly quotes the sentence
accurately and then proceeds disingenuously to interpret away its
undeniable meaning, attributing to the African American History
Standards Workgroup a design to defend the thoroughly discredited
19th-century argument of John C. Calhoun that slavery was a “positive

is the sentence in dispute: “Slaves developed skills which, in some
instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Besides the
obvious fact that this observation makes no reference to any benefit
from slavery itself, it speaks quite directly of skills personally
developed, and it includes skills already developed prior to enslavement
as well as skills developed subsequent to enslavement. The only benefit
is the “personal benefit” that resourceful, resilient, and industrious
humans derived from their own exertions. This is plain beyond cavil. It
is, moreover, reinforced in the curricular standards through
clarifications specifying examples that clearly do not fall within the
ambit of “gifts from enslavement.”

then, is the problem? Richardson is more open than Harris. She makes
explicit the argument that to take notice of the American founding as
opening a vista onto liberating principles somehow diminishes the
“truth” that the American founding was rather moral bane than moral boon
to humankind in general and Africans in particular. To sustain this
argument, however, she finds it necessary to erase every element of
American history that witnesses profoundly against her. In denying the
truth that the founding principles were incompatible with slavery — and
hence embracing the line of argument of Calhoun, Roger Taney, and
Woodrow Wilson about the “birth of the nation” — she requires readers to
ignore the explicit arguments of American founders, black and white.
From Stephen Hopkins’s open denunciation of slavery in 1764 on religious
as well as philosophical grounds to the observations of leading
Founders including Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Morris, Jay, et
al., the records describe a highly developed sense of incongruity in
proclaiming the “unalienable rights” of human beings while indulging
human enslavement. More important, she depreciates the efforts of Prince
Hall, Benjamin Banneker, Richard Allen, and others who invoked those
self-same principles in defense of and petitions for African liberty.

say that opponents of slavery were inspired by the Declaration of
Independence is so great a truism that one can only account for the
specious denial of that truism by acknowledging a deliberate agenda to
discredit the Founding itself. When the Florida curriculum observes that
the founding principles fostered expanding conceptions of human liberty
and hence expansions in civil rights and liberties, it says no more
than that the steady but difficult progress of representative democracy
in the United States — and its attendant prosperity — had never occurred
in the absence of those principles. Richardson denies this evident
fact. She implicitly rejects not only the arguments but the influence of
Frederick Douglass (as does the 1619 Project that inspires so much of
the criticism).

Douglass and Ida B. Wells in 1893 celebrated the accomplishments of
American blacks post-slavery, they did so in their essay, “The Reasons
Why,” by specifically identifying those accomplishments as the
accomplishments of American principles. Their protest of the exclusion
of blacks from the Columbian Exposition amounted to the argument that to
erase the history of black accomplishment was to erase the history of
America itself.

is the proper light in which to review Florida’s curricular standards.
Far from rejecting “the idea that enslavement belied American
principles,” as Richardson argues, the standards reinforce the
contradiction between those principles and enslavement. Far from denying
the reality of racism, the standards specifically call out Jefferson’s
formal coining of the racist argument for slavery in his “Notes on the
State of Virginia” Query XIV.

more importantly — and this is the most egregious distortion in
Richardson’s essay — rather than assimilating slavery “to any other kind
of service work,” the standards innovatively target the 1640 John Punch
case as originating the racial distinction in the treatment of
indentured servants — assigning European indentures only to a term of
years and an African indenture to lifetime service. Richardson is
obviously unfamiliar with this historical record, but that is no excuse
for her blithe misrepresentation of the work of the work group.

no one can close this discussion without specifically observing that
the criticisms of the standards are in fact a tacit insistence upon
dehumanizing the persons held in slavery. To deny that they could under
serious adversity nevertheless manifest agency and inventiveness from
which they could benefit is to characterize them as so deficient in the
human character as to be unable to “overcome.” Countless personal
accounts give the lie to this argument. The stories of the persons who
lived the history of enslavement are worth infinitely more than the
narratives about those lives that prevail in attacks on the curriculum.
No objective in the curriculum is more important than the objective to
enable schoolchildren to hear the stories of the people who lived the
history and to hear those stories in their own words. They described the
ways in which they turned to their advantage whatever circumstances
gave scope to do so. Douglass notably did so in describing the tentative
efforts of his owner’s wife to teach him to read. She gave him but
little, but just enough to spark in him the resolve to have the whole
lot. That he did, to his and his country’s benefit. Many similar
stories, large and small, were related, and all should be heard. No one
should be allowed to erase the stories of the people who lived the
histories. And the first criterion — that without which no
interpretation can be taken seriously — is to take seriously the stories
of the people themselves. And that means to understand those stories as
they themselves understood them. Remember, Booker T. Washington did not
title his autobiography “down in slavery.” He titled it “Up from

WILLIAM B. ALLEN is emeritus dean and professor of political philosophy at Michigan State University.

Author: Frances Rice