I want to spend a minute just to talk a little bit about the past. I want to spend a minute to talk to you a little bit about history.
As a black man in America, we know that our present is a result of the fights, and the struggles, and the victories of the past.
We are here because there were people who marched.
We are here because there were people who prayed over our generation.
We are here because there were people who fought for us, and they didn’t even know us.
People who didn’t even know us, but they believed in the hope of our generation and generations yet to come. People who knew that they would not get a chance to see the realization of their sacrifice in their own lifetimes.
Florida, a state that was once the home of one of the largest slave populations in America. A state that even into the 20th century still had black men lynched in their own streets, and in their own neighborhoods such as Rosewood, and Newberry. In fact, Florida lynched more Black men per capita than any other state in America. A state that was the birthplace and the proving grounds of redlining, and other discriminatory and predatory housing policies that have served as one of the greatest wealth thefts that we have seen in our nation’s history. That history is still fresh. And that history is still being felt.
Florida has a long and troubled history, without question. But Florida also has a history of courage, a history of leaders, thinkers, writers, and scholars, people who struggled but had the strength to overcome. People like James Weldon Johnson, a Jacksonville native and noted novelist, poet, newspaperman, lawyer, and civil rights activist. People like Zora Neale Hurston, the author best known for her 1937 novel, “There Eyes Were Watching God,” and the pride of Eatonville. People like Mary McLeod Bethune, born to former slaves in South Carolina, who became a world-renowned teacher, civil rights leader, and advisor to five U.S. presidents. And in 1904 with five little girls, and a budget of $1.50 opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which eventually became the great Bethune Cookman University.
Our history is our power. And I’ve come to tell you this morning, that we have got to hold our history close. Because life will test you. And when it does, your history will give you the power to meet the challenge. Because here in the state of Florida, people will seek to minimize our history. Here in Florida, people will seek to rewrite our history. Here in Florida, people will seek to have you forget our history.
I look around the country and I see book banning. I’m looking around the country right now and I’m seeing people being censored, teachers being censored. I see the curriculum of truth being taken out. This is not just a threat to our history, it is a threat to our strength. When politicians ban books and muzzle educators, they say it’s an effort to prevent discomfort and guilt. But we know that’s not true. This is not about a fear of making people feel bad. It is about a fear of people understanding their power. This is a fear of you realizing that Black people come from a long line of titans, of visionaries, of dreamers, of pioneers, of people who defied the odds and helped build this nation with their hands, their hearts, and their minds. And what is happening now with the teaching of Black history is just the beginning. I fear we are watching the early decay of a deep rot that threatens to hollow out our future by eliminating our past.
Those who yearn to destroy history will not stop at Black history. They will go after the history of those we know too. I’m talking about our friends in the indigenous community. I’m talking about our friends in the Jewish community. I’m talking about our friends in the Asian community. I’m talking about our friends in the gay community. I’m talking about our mothers and daughters and our sisters. I’m talking about everybody in this country who has ever been a part of the American story and who we are watching the stories of those who came before us be wiped away. A threat to the study of any history is a threat to all history.
So why is it important to have an AP course in African American studies? I’m glad you asked. It represents a long-fought effort to legitimize the teaching of Black people’s contributions to the world because African American studies is bigger than just what happened here in the United States. It is an effort to legitimize this in a way that would make for a radical departure from what is customarily taught today in 2023. The fact that people have fought to have an AP course, and the right for it to be developed is an important and significant achievement.
Also, the fact that the College Board has a monopoly over the way their 38 AP courses are taught in high schools across the United States in some ways is the closest thing to a national curriculum in the United States. We should see this course amongst the three dozen others as a window into the kinds of material that we take seriously in our secondary education system, as a feeder into higher education more generally.
To justify his threat to ban the course, DeSantis has said that “it lacks educational value.” My response to that is the governor is absolutely wrong. His claims are an open attack on everything that African American studies has fought hard to achieve, both in its position within higher education and the histories of the people who make contributions that African American studies both acknowledges and is built upon. It is a complete erasure and denigration of the contributions of people of African descent in this society and around the globe. The erasure of Black History continues to be a problem in American education and a veiled effort to celebrate white supremacy.
The larger context in which this backlash is happening strikes me as a direct consequence of the protest movements that have been going on in this country for the past decade that are loosely described as the Black Lives Matter movement. These racial justice protests culminated in inspiring millions of white people across the country in the summer of 2020 to take to the streets to protest police violence. Since that time, there has been a political movement led by the twice impeached, twice indicted, and disgraced former president Donald Trump, that later moved to state houses and legislative bodies to essentially cut off any further reading, discussion, or teaching about the history of anti-racist struggles in this country, and the contemporary movement for racial justice. What’s behind this current political attack is an effort to stem any further change in this country that would address the longstanding and enduring problems of structural racism that exists in the United States.
At this point, the College Board has to show a vigorous defense of the field, and an unflinching commitment to the fact that African American studies is about the past and the present. Fifty years from now, someone will look back on this moment, and either the College Board will be on the right side of history, or on the wrong side of history. The wrong side will have been to bend to the political pressure, to accept censorship, and to believe that a half-victory is better than no victory at all. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.
The College Board is going to have to commit itself fully to restoring this curriculum as it was originally imagined and designed. I do also believe that that will not solve the problem of Florida and several other states, including Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota, and Mississippi, that have all said that they will now be reviewing the AP course to ensure that it complies with their state laws.
Some people might think this is not as important as some other political issues that are more pressing in their minds. But Black people have always been the canaries in the coal mine for the fascist underpinnings of this society. Black people lived longer than any other population with 100 years of totalitarian government in the Jim Crow South. We know what fascism looks like; we know what racist propaganda looks like. We’ve lived through it, and fought against it. What today is the problem of an AP course in African American studies or Stop Woke Act is a fight that tomorrow will increasingly envelop other communities in this country who believe in equity and justice. That is a window into the dystopian future that every American ought to care deeply about for those who don’t want to slide into an authoritarian society, which seems to be the direction that significant parts of this country are heading. All of this is happening right now right in front of us, and I’m afraid not enough people are standing up to fight against it.
DeSantis’s argumentation is founded on the basic assumption that learning about disparate racial experiences in the United States will “indoctrinate” people to hate the United States. This sounds rather like a concession that DeSantis is ashamed of the United States, and believes that the best way to prevent other people from also feeling ashamed is to cut them off from historical facts and political debates.
When DeSantis states, “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” I must ask where is “hate” being stoked in African American Studies. Is it in the factual teaching that enslaved Black people were considered three-fifths of a human being?
The history books in Florida (and which appear on the AP US Government and Politics curriculum) celebrate the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, whose hypocrisy on matters of race is well documented; he wrote extensively about Black biological and intellectual inferiority. High school students are asked to hold as truth that national leaders can engage in visceral hatred of Black people, yet still produce ideas worthy of study and even aspiration. This attack against African American Studies is not motivated by the value of intellectual balance, but instead by ideological posturing.