On the Slavery Controversy in Florida

The Florida Board of Education has just enacted a policy whereby teachers of history in the public schools are to tell their students that under slavery, enslaved persons “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

An editorial in the Washington Post by Gillian Brockell, drawing on the research of historian David Hackett Fischer, points out that many among the first generations of captive laborers from Africa already had skills; indeed, most had some familiarity with farming, and some had more specialized know-how.  And this is just the latest round of historians correcting the myth that, under slavery, the whites taught the Blacks everything they could possibly need to know, not just in terms of skills but also of culture and morality.  (Decades earlier, historian Herbert Gutman let us know that enslaved persons had a taboo on marrying their cousins, which the surrounding white society didn’t.)

There’s actually more to why what’s happening in Florida falls in the category of everything old being new again.  Romanticizing slavery in the school curriculum was common in the mid-twentieth century; I have seen textbooks from that period that told pupils, essentially, that slaves were treated well, the only problem was that they weren’t free and they wanted to be free, the idea being that the end of  slavery represented a virtuous American society becoming even more virtuous, a free society becoming even freer.

But there are some other things we need to consider.  First of all, let’s accept the premise, because it actually is true, that in the latter days of slavery, there were some enslaved persons who had the opportunity to learn specialized skills–blacksmithing, for instance–and that after slavery was abolished, it was possible for formerly enslaved blacksmiths to work as free blacksmiths.   That much is true, and there’s nothing pernicious about mentioning it.  The problem with what Florida is doing, however, is twofold.  First, it carries the implication that slavery was only partly bad and had some redeeming qualities.  Second, when governmental authorities are prescribing any specific interpretations of history at all to be taught in the classrooms, it fits into the larger problem of the deskilling of teaching and the commandeering of classroom history to shape the way that the party in power wants students to be taught to feel personally about what they’re studying.

Some really basic facts about slavery need to be reviewed here.  Basic fact number one is that enslaved persons had no rights.  Masters were at liberty to be as benevolent (in the context of a profoundly unbenevolent system) or as cruel as they wanted to be.  Yes, some masters were comparatively benevolent, refraining from using the whip, raping enslaved women, and breaking up families, or at least doing these things less often than other masters, but so what?  When you have no rights, it’s barely relevant to observe that some of the time you’re not having all of your nonrights violated at once.  If there’s a law that allows your neighbor to do anything he wants to you at any time, even including beat you to death when he’s displeased with you, you will hardly be satisfied with being told that your neighbor, out of the goodness of his heart, is going to refrain from being too mean to you.  To suggest that the absence of rights for enslaved persons was in any way mitigated by the fact that not all masters were cruel all of the time is pure racism, which should be obvious if one thinks about it.

Basic fact number two is that slavery violated the human body in every way that the human body can be violated.  Whipping was a common punishment, and again, masters were free to use the whip whenever they liked.  It’s also well known that male masters could legally have their way with their female property, as in, rape.  Add to that the grueling work, which aged the people who were forced to do it all those long hours.  Again, there were variations, and not all enslaved people suffered all the same things, but because they had no rights, they were subject to all of it at the will of their masters.  All the anecdotes in the world about “kind” masters does not change that.

And as for the learning of specialized skills, the majority of enslaved persons simply worked in the fields of plantations, doing backbreaking work in the scorching hot sun.  The fact that the Florida policy contains the phrase “in some instances” is significant, but statistically, it could even be said to have been “in some rare instances.”

However, we should not even have to have this conversation, because political bodies like the Florida Board of Education should not be telling teachers how to teach.  It should tell the schools that U.S. history should be taught at certain grade levels, just as it should call for there to be offerings in algebra, chemistry, and so on.  But the specifics of the curriculum should be left up to the individual schools and the teachers in those schools, and those teachers should be sufficiently educated in the subject matter that what they teach reflects the best research of the scholars in the field.  Shaping how students feel personally about any of it should be irrelevant, and it’s more than a little bit alarming that there are people in power over the schools who think that the shaping of personal attitudes is, or should be, what the teaching of history is about.

Even so, there’s still a nagging question:  Why does the Florida Board of Education want students to be taught that slavery had some redeeming qualities to it?  Can it be that they want students, both Black and white, to believe that the whites know what’s best for the Blacks, and that the Blacks should let the whites teach them what they need to know and be grateful for it?  They apparently think that newly liberated blacksmiths in 1865 (however few there were) owed a debt of gratitude to their white masters who taught them the trade.  Does this suggest anything about what they envision for the present?


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