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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Black history in Florida: 'Strong, valuable people'

Alex Haley's Roots, which traced his ancestors back to Africa, was a very big deal when it was shown on TV in 1977. I was surprised to see that Haley's great-grandfather was a blacksmith, both as a slave and as a free man. I'd thought of slaves as unskilled laborers picking cotton, but many were skilled artisans, wrote John Michael Vlach, a George Washington University professor.

Georg Stanford Brown played Alex Haley's great-grandfather, Tom Harvey, a blacksmith, in "Roots."

Enslaved "blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, shoemakers, tanners, spinners, weavers and other artisans . . . developed not only a spirit of self-reliance but experienced a measure of autonomy," he wrote. "These skills, when added to other talents for cooking, quilting, weaving, medicine, music, song, dance, and storytelling, instilled in slaves the sense that, as a group, they were not only competent but gifted. Slaves used their talents to deflect some of the daily assaults of bondage. They saw themselves then as strong, valuable people who were unjustly held against their will rather than as the perpetually dependent children or immoral scoundrels described by so many of their owners."

Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Florida to charge that the state's new guidelines for teaching history, including black history, would "replace history with lies."

Speaking in Jacksonville, Harris said the curriculum teaches that "enslaved people benefited from slavery.

One line calls for teaching "how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit."

Florida will teach about the evils of slavery, resistance to slavery, the Underground Railroad, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement and the many achievements of African Americans, writes Charles C. W. Cooke in the National Review. He read the full curriculum, which is available here, and noted every reference to black history. Click the link to see for yourself.

Instruction will include writings by Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, David Walker, Martin Delaney, and discussions of "Prince Hall, Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Richard Allen, the Free African Society, Olaudah Equiano, Omar ibn Said, Cudjoe Lewis, Anna Jai Kingsley."

Students are supposed to learn about "the struggles faced by African American women in the 19th century as it relates to issues of suffrage, business and access to education."

Teachers will cover campaigns for community self-sufficiency and "the contributions of black innovators, entrepreneurs and organizations to the development and growth of black businesses and innovations."

Among the many African-American role models listed, by the way, is Kamala Harris.

Whether teachers teach and students will learn everything in this incredibly ambitious curriculum is an open question. (OK, it's not. They won't.) But it's not a happy-clappy dismissal of slavery or of African-American history.

I think the underlying objection is that the curriculum emphasizes the strengths of enslaved and free African Americans, rather than casting them as helpless victims of eternal racism. It suggests there's been progress.

I belong to a Jewish book club. Periodically, someone (usually me) says: No more Holocaust books! And let's not read about the Spanish Inquisition or the Russian pogroms either. Enough already.

Do black parents want more emphasis on the horrors of slavery? Or more stress on black achievers?

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