Vice President Kamala Harris, Jan. 22, 2023. Credit: Danielle J. Brown.
Outraged at the new Black history standards in Florida, Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday blasted what she called revisionist history promoted in the state’s African American history standards approved this week by top education officials.
Just two days after the State Board of Education approved the standards, Harris told the crowd in Jacksonville at the Ritz Theater and Museum that Florida’s book bans, LGBTQ+ rights restrictions, and Black history revisions are part of a national right-wing agenda.
“Adults know what slavery really involved. It involved rape; it involved torture; it involved taking a baby from their mother; it involved some of the worst examples of depriving people of humanity in our world; it involved subjecting people to think of themselves and be thought of as less than humans,” Harris said.
“So, in the context of that, how is it that anyone could suggest that, in the midst of these atrocities, that there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?”
Harris continued: “And so, let us be clear: Teachers want to teach the truth. Teachers want to teach facts. And teachers dedicate themselves to some of the most noble work any human being could take on: to teach other people’s children — for the sake of the future of our nation.
“And so, they should not then be told by politicians that they should be teaching revisionist history in order to keep their jobs. What is going on?”
Critics of the first stand-alone standards for African American history say they largely limit elementary school instruction to identifying famous Black people. At the middle school level, the standards describes slavery as personally beneficial in instances where the enslaved learned skills. High schoolers will learn that the 1920 Ocoee Massacre involved violence against and by African Americans.
While Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t address any of the specific criticisms against the standards, he took to his campaign Twitter account to criticize the vice president’s visit ahead of her arrival.
“Democrats like Kamala Harris have to lie about Florida’s educational standards to cover for their agenda of indoctrinating students and pushing sexual topics onto children,” the governor wrote. “Florida stands in their way and we will continue to expose their agenda and their lies. The Harris-Biden administration is obsessed with Florida … yet they ignore the chaos at the border, crime-infested cities, economic malaise, and the military recruitment crisis.”
Aside from criticizing the standards, the vice president called out the state government’s lack of action against gun violence. Instead of wanting to arm teachers, leaders should be promoting gun safety, she said.
Ultimately, Harris characterized extremist leaders as figures fomenting culture wars meant to divide Americans.
“Let’s not fall in that trap,” she said. “We will stand united as a country. We know our collective history; it is our shared history. We are all in this together.
“We know that we will rise and fall together as a nation. We will not allow them to suggest anything other than what we know: The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us.”
The whole story
For now, members of the work group that developed the African American history standards are focused on explaining how they concluded that Black people benefitted from slavery because they learned skills. A spokesperson from the Florida Department of Education published a statement on Thursday from two members of the work group, citing people like John Chavis and Booker T. Washington as examples of slaves who developed trades from which they benefitted.
“Any attempt to reduce slaves to just victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage, and resiliency during a difficult time in American history,” according to a statement by William Allen and Frances Presley Rice who helped develop the standards. “Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants.”
Allen and Rice added: “It is disappointing, but nevertheless unsurprising, that critics would reduce months of work to create Florida’s first ever stand-alone strand of African American History Standards to a few isolated expressions without context.”
Even so, the work group’s statement didn’t tackle the backlash against other aspects of the standards.
Black lawmakers speak out
This teaching of the 1920 Ocoee Massacre is more personal for Orange County State Sen. Geraldine Thompson. In 2020, she helped champion a bill to add the massacre to Florida’s K-12 education curriculum. She spoke out against the standards during the Wednesday meeting.
“When you look at the history, currently it suggests that the [Ocoee] massacre was sparked by violence from African Americans,” she wrote in a statement on Friday. “That’s blaming the victim, when in fact it was other individuals who came into the Black Community cand killed individuals and burned homes, schools, lodges, etc. So we want to tell the whole story.”
Other politicians such as State Rep. Dianne Hart from Hillsborough County commended Harris for her visit. Hart is the chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus.
“It is unfortunate that Florida has become the leader in all the wrong areas, and this new attempt to continue to diminish the importance of African-American history, and to present our students with a lack-luster version of the truth is evidence to that fact,” she wrote in a statement. “As chair of the Black Caucus, we have made this a priority issue and we will continue to advocate for truth, for facts, and for age-appropriate curriculum.”
There has been no shortage of criticism toward the standards, but no concrete actions have been announced. Though, State Sen. Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach said the “so-called” standards needed to be thrown out.
“When the dogs and the water cannons, the police batons, and the lynching mobs were let loose on these former African American slaves, was that for their ‘personal benefit’ as well? He wrote. “These so-called standards need to be thrown out immediately, and a full and honest examination of what’s really driving this one-sided agenda needs to begin.”
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