The War on Black Studies Isn't "Culture War" – It's Part of a Long Political BattleRoundup
tags: African American history, W.E.B. Dubois, Carter G. Woodson, Black Studies, education history, critical race theory, Freedom Schools
We fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.
—W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America
It is strange…that the friends of truth and the promoters of freedom have not risen up against the present propaganda in the schools and crushed it. This crusade is much more important than the anti-lynching movement, because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.
—Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro
On January 20, Florida’s education commissioner, Manny Diaz Jr., tweeted out a chart justifying the state’s decision to ban schools from teaching a newly created advanced placement course in African American Studies. The graphic singled out the curriculum’s inclusion of Black queer studies, intersectionality, Black feminist literary thought, reparations, and the Movement for Black Lives as “obvious violations of Florida law.” It also identified scholars whose work was included in an earlier iteration of the curriculum as radical propagandists bent on smuggling “critical race theory” (CRT), Marxism, and deviant sexuality into high-school classrooms.
Despite the fact that the College Board had not yet released the final curriculum to the public, Diaz and the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, claimed it violated Senate Bill 148, better known as the “Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act,” or the Stop W.O.K.E. Act. Sponsored by Diaz and signed in April 2022, the law prohibits teaching anything that might cause “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” or “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent…with state academic standards.” In other words, introducing and teaching race, gender, sexuality, and anything remotely resembling critical race theory was strictly prohibited.
When the College Board released the final curriculum eleven days later, it had changed substantially. Most of the material the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) found offensive was removed or downgraded from mandatory to optional. The revised 226-page curriculum eliminated queer studies, critical race theory, mass incarceration, and a section titled “Black Struggle in the 21st Century,” made the Black Lives Matter movement and reparations optional research projects, and added a project topic on “Black conservatism.” The names of all the offending authors—including myself—were removed.
The College Board insisted that it had not bowed to political pressure, despite a trove of email exchanges with the FDOE discussing potentially prohibited content and a final letter from the FDOE thanking the board for removing topics the state had deemed “discriminatory and historically fictional.” The fact is that the College Board stood to lose millions of dollars if Florida canceled its AP courses. Although a federal judge blocked portions of the Stop W.O.K.E. Act that restricted academic freedom in public colleges and universities, the law still applies to private businesses and K–12 education.
Rather than accept a watered-down curriculum bereft of the theories, concepts, and interdisciplinary methods central to Black Studies, students, teachers, scholars, and social justice activists fought back. On May 3 they organized a nationwide day of action calling out the College Board and defending the integrity of Black Studies. Apparently it worked. A week before the national protest, the College Board announced plans to revise the curriculum yet again. As of this writing, however, no specific changes have been announced.
The right’s vehement opposition to Black Studies is predictable. Black Studies has been under attack since its formal inception on college campuses in the late 1960s, and repression of all knowledge advancing Black freedom goes back much further. Most state laws prohibiting enslaved Africans from learning to read and write were introduced after 1829, in response first to the publication of David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World—an unrelenting attack on slavery and US hypocrisy for maintaining it—and then to Nat Turner’s rebellion two years later. Back then the Appeal was contraband: anyone caught with it faced imprisonment or execution. Today it is a foundational text in Black Studies.
The historian Jarvis R. Givens found that during the Jim Crow era Black school teachers often “deployed fugitive tactics” and risked losing their jobs in order to teach Black history.
In Mississippi, organizers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) taught contraband history in “freedom schools,” while the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) established “freedom libraries” throughout the state stocked with donated books—many on Black history by Black authors. Between 1964 and 1965, white terrorists burned down the freedom libraries in Vicksburg, Laurel, and Indianola.
Who’s afraid of Black Studies? White supremacists, fascists, the ruling class, and even some liberals. As well they should be. Not everything done in the name of Black Studies challenges the social order. Like any field, it has its own sharp divisions and disagreements. But unlike mainstream academic disciplines, Black Studies was born out of a struggle for freedom and a genuine quest to understand the world in order to change it, presenting political and moral philosophy with their most fundamental challenge. The objects of study have been Black life, the structures that produce premature death, the ideologies that render Black people less than human, the material consequences of those ideologies, and the foundational place of colonialism and slavery in the emergence of modernity. Black Studies grew out of, and interrogates, the long struggle to secure our future as a people and for humanity by remaking and reenvisioning the world through ideas, art, and social movements. It emerged as both an intellectual and political project, without national boundaries and borders. The late political theorist Cedric J. Robinson described it as “a critique of Western Civilization.”
A chief target of this critique has been the interpretation of history. Battles over the teaching of history are never purely intellectual contests between ignorance and enlightenment, or reducible to demands to insert marginalized people into the curriculum.
Contrary to the common liberal complaint that schools “ignore” the history of slavery and racism, Black and Native people have long occupied a place in school history curricula. Generations of students learned that white people settled the wilderness, took rightful ownership of the land from bloodthirsty Indians who didn’t know what to do with it, and brought the gift of civilization and democracy to North America and the rest of the world. During most of the twentieth century, students were taught that Negroes were perfectly happy as slaves, until some conniving Republicans and carpetbaggers persuaded them otherwise. Leading history books by Ivy League professors repeated the myth, and in the first epic film in the US, D. W. Griffith depicted the “great and noble” Ku Klux Klan redeeming the South from rapacious, ignorant Negroes and shifty carpetbaggers, obliterating all vestiges of the Black struggle to bring genuine democracy to the South and the nation.