The National Association of Scholars and the Civics Alliance endorse Florida’s new African American History Strand (AAHS), which has just become part of Florida’s State Academic Standards – Social Studies, 2023. AAHS provides solid guidance for Florida’s public K–12 teachers to instruct students in African American history. Florida’s African American History Standards Workgroup deserves commendation for its professional work, and the Florida Board of Education deserves commendation for approving that work.
Public criticism of AAHS has focused on the Benchmark Clarification for SS.68.AA.2.3: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” This statement ought to be uncontroversial, since it is an incontrovertible historical fact. Eugene Genovese in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), for example, includes an entire chapter (“Men of Skill”) that expands on the Benchmark Clarification. The critique of this statement is ideological in nature, because the statement is perceived to contradict the current critical race theory (CRT) dogma on the history of slavery.
The irony is that AAHS’s emphasis on slaves developed skills reflects a previous generation of reformist and radical historiography. These historians sought to disprove the older contention that black slaves had no skills and no individual successes, and that they were (in a phrase) slaves meet for slavery. To argue that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit” was the emancipatory argument of that generation of historians. The argument has endured not least because it is true.
A further irony is that CRT dogma aligns in many particulars with the older “slaves meet for slavery” argument. CRT dogma replaces slave incapacity with systemic racist oppression, but the two arguments agree in de-emphasizing the individual capacity for achievement of black slaves. CRT advocates should pause to reflect when they consider how their arguments dovetail with those of the apologists for slavery.
AAHS possesses further virtues, including a proper comparative treatment of different forms of slavery and servitude in Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas; the joint work of black and white abolitionists to end slavery; the integration of African American history into the broader narrative of America’s exceptional commitment to liberty; and a general approach that emphasizes a dispassionate presentation of historical facts. AAHS should be commended for all these achievements.
AAHS is not perfect. It substitutes the politically fashionable word “enslaved” for “slave,” which, among other problems, obscures the historically important distinction between men actually enslaved and men born into slavery. It abbreviates coverage of the society and culture of Southern slaves and Northern free blacks before the Civil War, and of sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South—the daily character of African American life, distinct from its role in the narrative of American liberty. It also abbreviates coverage of African American Christianity; topics that merit explicit and detailed coverage include the African American adoption of Christianity, slave preachers, William J. Seymour and the black contribution to Pentecostalism, and the role of black Christian belief and church organization in the civil rights movement. Future revisions of AAHS should address these shortcomings.
But these are minor flaws. AAHS sets a high standard for state guidance for K–12 study of African American history. Floridians should take pride in the work of their state government.