Opinion DeSantis is wrong about Black studies

Civil rights supporters, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the "March on Washington" in August 1963. (AFP/Getty Images)
8 min

Mark Whitaker is a journalist and the author of “Saying It Loud: 1966 — The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement,” which will be published on Feb. 7.

In the latest salvo in his war on “wokeness,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced support for a statewide ban on a new Advanced Placement class on African American studies that will be officially unveiled this week at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. In defending the ban, DeSantis (R) and his allies at Florida’s Department of Education relied on a draft framework for the curriculum, and cherry-picked from roughly a hundred proposed topics to object to a handful of buzzwords, including “reparations” and “intersectionality,” as well as Black feminism and Black queer activism. “We want education, not indoctrination,” DeSantis declared.

DeSantis’s attack on this new high school curriculum is an extension of a bill he signed into state law last year called the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act. This provocatively entitled “Stop WOKE” Act prohibits Florida schools from teaching history in any way that generalizes about what members of one racial group have done to members of another racial group in the past. “No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race,” DeSantis said at that signing, turning language that once might have applied to minorities on its head to signal to today’s White students and their parents that they shouldn’t be made to feel bad about anything their ancestors did to Black people.

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Although DeSantis and his allies have insisted that they are not against teaching “the history of African Americans,” their rhetoric suggests that they are hostile to the idea of treating Black studies as a separate field of study, and that they believe it serves only to turn impressionable young people of different backgrounds against one another. “These dangerous concepts seek to divide Americans, rather than unite them,” said Richard Corcoran, Florida’s commissioner of education, when the Stop WOKE Act was passed.

Yet, as I discovered in reporting a book about the pivotal year in Black history that was 1966, when the push for Black studies began at what is now San Francisco State University, the original advocates of this idea had something very different in mind. At the time, their focus was on encouraging Black people themselves to understand and celebrate their role in the American story — and thus to feel a greater stake in American citizenry at a time of intense racial turmoil. If the AP curriculum that has grown out of that movement seems more designed to tell that story than to reassure White students, that’s no accident. But teenagers of all races can benefit from the wider understanding of our history that Black studies have helped foster.

In addition to the dawn of Black studies, 1966 saw an extraordinary flowering of “Black consciousness” on other fronts. Firebrand Stokely Carmichael displaced future congressman John Lewis as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and popularized the slogan “Black Power!” Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, Calif., with its trademark berets and leather jackets. Afros and dashikis sprouted, and the first Kwanzaa was celebrated.

But, at a deeper level, the Black Power movement was just the latest manifestation of a “nationalist” strain in African American history that stretched back for more than a century, to the days of Marcus Garvey and before. The key difference was that Garvey and previous nationalist leaders believed that the only answer to the miserable condition of Black people in America was to seek a separate homeland elsewhere. By contrast, the Black Power generation embraced the idea of a new culture that would allow Black people to feel a greater sense of pride and heritage while staying put in the United States.

Malcolm X, who remained a hero to Black Power leaders even after his assassination in 1965, was the foremost proponent of this philosophy. Born Malcolm Little, he was the son of Garvey followers who traveled the country during his early childhood spreading the idea of a Black exodus to a new home in Africa or the Caribbean. But Malcolm himself came to believe that nationalism was a psychological, not a geographical, condition.

After Malcolm was killed, the Black Beat poet LeRoi Jones moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem, founded the Black Arts Movement, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and was then invited to San Francisco to help pioneer that first Black studies curriculum. In an influential essay, Baraka credited Malcolm with the idea that no matter where they were, “Black People are a race, a culture, a Nation … Our land is where we live.”

In the winter of 1966, a Black Texas native named Jimmy Garrett enrolled in what was then San Francisco State College. Already 23, Garrett had been a Freedom Rider and a fundraiser for SNCC in Los Angeles, where he sought support from Hollywood liberals such as Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Now, he was determined to win a bet with a fellow SNCC organizer that he could form a Black student union on a predominantly White campus. When he circulated a manifesto entitled “Justification for Black Studies,” Garrett recalled, it was at first a bid to foster “collective consciousness” among a tiny Black student population that at the time was balkanized between jocks, wonks, and fraternity and sorority types.

With the rise of Black Power in 1966 also came a White political backlash that helped elect Ronald Reagan governor of California and propelled a rightward swing in midterm voting that set the stage for Richard M. Nixon’s presidential run two years later. As that backlash grew uglier, Eugene Genovese, a well-known White scholar of American slavery, predicted that the study of Black history would provide a refuge for Black people on campus who might otherwise turn to violence, answering calls to armed revolution from the likes of Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers. “We may expect to arrive, therefore, at a new view of Afro-American history, whatever the political outcome of the present turmoil,” Genovese wrote in a prominent academic journal.

A half-century later, most states have accepted the value of teaching some African American history, and Florida’s constitution even requires it. So why the attack on this AP course? DeSantis told reporters that it was because the proposed curriculum promotes a far-left “agenda” without presenting opposing views. A quick scan of the draft framework shows otherwise. On its last page, the framework recommends 25 books and texts that have achieved a “strong consensus” among educators as essential to the African American studies canon, including such classics as “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

But the top 25 list also includes a 1926 essay called “The Negro Art Hokum” by George Schuyler, a longtime conservative columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, a widely read Black newspaper, blasting the idea that African American art was different from any other kind of art as “self-evident foolishness.” Why did the scores of eminent scholars and veteran teachers involved in vetting the AP course recommend Schuyler’s essay, which reads as decidedly un-woke today? Clearly, they wanted to expose students to different points of view and stimulate classroom debate.

Among the contemporary Black scholars singled out as unacceptable by the Florida critics was Leslie Kay Jones, a Rutgers University sociologist who has argued that Black people provide vast amounts of free content to Twitter and Facebook without reflecting on the role those platforms might play in perpetuating a white supremacist “superstructure.” Reached for comment by the Associated Press, Jones said she assumed that any good high school teacher would use her writing as a jumping off point to encourage students “to come to their own conclusions through an evaluation of primary and secondary texts.” As Jones put it, “Is Ron DeSantis claiming that Florida students are unable to formulate their own opinions?”

A skeptic would say that DeSantis actually doesn’t care about the educational arguments and is simply grandstanding to get attention and support for an expected presidential run. But far more than transitory politics is at stake. In America, teaching history in high school has long been seen as having not just an educational but a deeper civic purpose. DeSantis seems to be playing to his political base by harking back to a day when that meant offering students a one-size-fits-all, uplifting national story dominated by the noble deeds of great White men. But as far back as the 1960s, members of the Black Power generation announced they were no longer accepting that sanitized narrative, and since then they have been joined by millions of young women and members of other ethnic and LGBTQ communities.

In today’s world, preserving a sense of shared American identity requires allowing young people to understand our history in all its complexity. If Florida officials were wise, they would realize that means helping students of all backgrounds see themselves in our past, so they can better envision themselves in our future.