We have done this in the bleak, dark past
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Today’s education wars are giving me a déjà vu headache.
Ron DeSantis would have Florida’s children believe there’s really no significance to African American history, literature or culture — or any history, literature or culture other than that of Euro-centric white America. (Here’s just one list of a few currently banned books. Read it and weep.)
I was jogged to write this piece by a recent Medium post by Deb C, a writer who knows what she’s writing about. She is hardly a newcomer to injustice. In an earlier opinion piece for a small Florida newspaper Deb C had written, “Why is it not as important to everyone as it is to African Americans that our history be equally shared, as an opportunity for all Americans to better understand and coexist in this country?” That was written in 2003.
Why, today, is it unimportant to Ron DeSantis for Floridians to know the history of other cultures, African American in particular? Deb C calls him ‘Roger B Taney DeSantis,’ just in case you’d forgotten the name of the Dred Scott decision judge. (Now we can all remember.) It is all of a piece, but at this point in time it’s education that we should worry about.
We have been here before.
I grew up (white, relatively privileged) in the segregated south — admittedly a very long time ago, the 1940s and 50s. The textbooks I read, many of them still in use well past Brown v Board of Education, taught that the “War Between the States” (we did not use the term “Civil War”) was solely about “states’rights.” Those evil northerners seeking to dictate to us genteel southerners. Gone With the Wind was in our school libraries, but nothing by Frederick Douglas or Richard Wright or the Black writers who would inspire the likes of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and other great African American voices that began to be heard from the 1950s on.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
The big literary event of my elementary school was the semi-annual UDC essay contest. As in, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. There would be an assigned title, usually something relating to a Confederate general or other hero, and the essay was part of our Civics assignment. Even had it not been required schoolwork, everybody wanted to submit a winning essay; prizes were awarded at Assembly by the local UDC chapter president, a dowager of local renown. I may have won, occasionally; I would like to think not.
Just to be clear: the mission of the UDC is to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.” If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s woven into the fabric of every white supremacist group in the U.S.
My parents — my father was head of a small college that skirted racial issues in these years — negotiated life in our small town without rippling the waters, though my mother caused eyebrows to raise behind the blue veils of the town gentry by repeatedly refusing to join the UDC and by regularly, though infrequently, hosting visiting Black scholars and friends. (Who of course could not stay in the town hotel.) My sisters and I did not discuss these houseguests outside of our home. Racial injustice itself was seldom discussed in depth around our dinner table. To my parents’ credit, we had books by Douglas and Wright, Langston Hughes and others on our home library shelves, and when there were assignments on the Civil War I was handed an Encyclopedia Britannica. I was more fortunate than most of my friends.
These are the educational roots of millions of Americans: people in their 70s and 80s who studied those lessons. And many of their children and grandchildren are learning by extension. The teachings are from UDC-approved textbooks. One has to wonder who’s approving the books that will remain on the shelves of Florida schools.
Were my family and I complicit in maintaining white supremacy long after it should have been challenged? Of course. Admitting and understanding that, however, does not make me “feel bad,” as today’s anti-CRT advocates fear would befall our poor, defenseless white children. It makes me feel liberated to know truth, and even more appreciative of the countless ways African American culture continues to enrich the lives of us all.
Could someone please explain this to Ron DeSantis?