On Feb. 1, 2023, the start of Black History Month, a New York Times headline read: “The College Board Strips Down Its A.P. Curriculum for African American Studies.” In a seeming reaction to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, banning the earlier version of this course, the College Board removed from the core curriculum any examination of critical race theory, the study of contemporary topics like Black Lives Matter, and the works of scholars like Columbia and UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, Yale professor Roderick Ferguson, Ta-Nehesi Coates and bell hooks.
After public outcry, the College Board claimed that these changes were in the works before the DeSantis administration banned the course. The Board has also expressed regret for not denouncing the Florida Dept. of Education’s “slander” that the course “lacks educational value.” Florida officials, meanwhile, have continued to gloat that their criticism led to the course changes.
Whether the College Board’s revisions were a reaction or not, it’s clear that DeSantis and other conservatives have castigated what they believe was the “ideological” content of the initially planned course. This is the sort of double-speak that conservatives are so fond of: What they believe is “non-ideological” but anything they disagree with is “ideological” and un-American. Of course, this is hypocritical nonsense, but as Yale historian David Blight has observed, hypocrisy has always been a tool of racism.
History, stated the critic Walter Benjamin, is the tale of the victors. In part, he meant that those who win wars, those who have the power, are the ones who get to tell history. In this, the telling of history is always ideological, is always a struggle for power. And DeSantis and his ilk know this; that is why they are trying to suppress the teaching of African American history—from the point of view of African American writers and scholars.
As I state The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself, from its very beginnings America had two irreconcilable goals. One was to seek equality, freedom, and democracy. The other was to maintain white supremacy and the domination by white people over any people of color. White America is fine with telling our tale through the lens of the first goal. But it is still decidedly not fine with telling the second story of America’s treatment of people of color and America’s desire to maintain white supremacy. All the recent ridiculous distorting, disparaging, and damning of Critical Race Theory are just the latest manifestation of this repression.
Hypocrisy has always been a tool of racism.
Instead, this second tale, the tale of BIPOC America, is regarded as un-American, unpatriotic, a smear on the past, an abomination to the present—or at best, a minor element. According to some, this story can never be integrated with the story of America’s noble pursuit of its ideal goals. And this is an essential way white America has lied to itself: it has denied the voices of people of color as an essential and defining part of America’s tale; it has denied their validity as Americans; it has denied that their history is also the history of white America—however white America wants to deny that fact.
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In essence what Gov. DeSantis and conservative groups like Moms for Liberty are saying is this: The problem is not that white America has been abusing Black America throughout our history and into the present, but that Black Americans keep remembering this history and telling it to white people—which somehow victimizes white people. My verb choice here is deliberate: This is the psychology of the abuser.
DeSantis is not a scholar; he hasn’t, I’m sure, made an extensive study of African American history and theory. But he knows he can critique with impunity the work of African American historians and scholars. He can do this by relying on a foundational premise of Whiteness as an ideology and practice: White knowledge is always considered valid, objective, true and official, while Black knowledge is always suspect, subjective, false and unofficial—unless Whiteness approves of it.
That DeSantis relies on this foundational principle of white supremacy is actually evidence of systemic racism, a term he wants to ban from any mention in Florida schools.
The telling of history is always ideological and is always a struggle for power. DeSantis and his ilk know this.
For indeed, white suppression of the history of African Americans has been systemic since the start of this country. It was there in the forbidding of slaves to read and write and the banning of their African languages. It was there in the suppression of any vocalized expression by slaves against their enslavement. It was there in the creation of the myth of The Lost Cause, which stated that the true causes of the Civil War were Northern aggression and the attack on state’s rights and not slavery, since slavery was a benign institution and a natural condition that treated slaves well.
In the early twentieth century, the North began to adopt this myth as part of the reunification of Northern whites with Southern whites. The films Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind are both examples of this white supremacist history. What they demonstrate is that history can be easily falsified by those in power. Moreover, history is not simply events, but the ways those events are interpreted and contextualized — not in the past, but in the present.
It is clear that DeSantis and other conservatives object to the ways writers like Crenshaw, Ferguson, Coates and hooks interpret and contextualize both our history and our present. For example, Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality proposes that our history of race should be integrated with understanding race through other categories such as gender, orientation, class, etc. But of course, DeSantis is also against feminist studies, gay studies, and any true examination of class in American history like, for instance, how racism has been used to distract and mollify the discontents of working class white people. This move can be seen as far back as the reaction to Bacon’s rebellion in 1676 since it was after this white working class rebellion that the white elite institutionalized the privileges and rights of Whiteness in contrast to the category of Blackness. But such historical teachings would then cause students to question how race is still used to distract and mollify the white working class in the present.
As I point out in my book, when it comes to the issues of racial equality, Black America has always been on the right side of history; the majority of white Americans, at any point, have been on the wrong side of history. And yet white America has never turned to Black America and said, “We got it wrong every time in our history and you got it right. So now, we’re going to follow your lead in the present.”
It’s no wonder why we need an African American history month. Gov. DeSantis and so many white Americans are still not ready to hear how Black Americans would tell our history and to recognize how we cannot understand white American history without the truth embodied in the experiences, narratives and scholarship of African Americans.
In short, we still have not given up the stories Whiteness tells itself.
about DeSantis’ war on education
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