When Florida’s State Board of Education adopted new standards for teaching African American history earlier this month, a deluge of criticism quickly followed. It was largely directed at two sections — one suggesting that Black Americans benefited in some ways from being enslaved and another that failed to give the full context regarding racial violence.
But these two sections comprise a few sentences of 19 pages’ worth of Black history benchmarks. So what else do the standards contain?
A guide for teachers
First, it’s important to distinguish between standards and a curriculum. The new standards are not set-in-stone rules for what teachers say in the classroom but rather a guide for what benchmarks the Department of Education believes that students should reach. These new standards were written after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Individual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop Woke act, barring instruction that could make someone feel guilt or psychological anguish because of their race.
What’s in the standards
For kindergarten through fourth grade, the standards ask students to recognize and identify African Americans who have had “positive influences” in areas such as art, invention, politics and the military. One standard specifically focuses on Black leaders who have made positive contributions to Florida, citing Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Coleman, and Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James as examples.
Students first begin to learn about slavery in fifth grade — specifically with lessons on the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movements — while also being asked to recognize and identify African Americans from early Florida and from westward expansion.
Those in sixth through eighth grades learn about the slave trade and early slave revolts, as well as some of the congressional legislation surrounding slavery, such as the Three-Fifths Compromise.
It is in this section that the heavily criticized “personal benefit” language can be found. The standard asks teachers to discuss the various jobs that enslaved people performed, such as painting, blacksmithing and agricultural work, and then show how “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
The high school standards are the most in-depth, comprising 14 of the 19 pages. Here, teachers should discuss slavery as a practice before its use in American Colonies, along with the Middle Passage and living conditions of enslaved people in the various Colonies. They also should teach about African resistance to slavery, discuss legislative policies that enshrined slavery and examine the modern civil rights movement.
As in the earlier grades, students are taught about notable African figures and groups, such as Phillis Wheatley and Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, as well as white figures who opposed slavery, such as Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. The standards do not mention research suggesting that both men benefited financially from the slave trade and were themselves enslavers.
The second main target of recent criticism — the mention of “violence perpetrated against and by African Americans” — occurs in a section of the standards focused on Black communities since Reconstruction. It cites the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre, the 1919 Washington, D.C., Race Riot, the 1920 Ocoee massacre, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre.
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The standards reach until the present day, with final sections asking students to recognize famous African Americans who have contributed to American life and Florida-specific people and events.
What critics say
State Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, joined others in criticizing the wording that says enslaved people benefited from developing certain skills and the passage mentioning violence done by African Americans.
She said the examples that the standards provide for moments of violence against and by African Americans ignore the context of why that violence may have occurred. The Ocoee massacre, for example, was sparked by a white mob after African American men exercised their constitutional right to vote, but the language in the standards implies that Black and white people were equal aggressors.
Notably, DeSantis signed a bill into law three years ago requiring that the massacre be taught in Florida schools.
David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said that a factual standard would instead characterize the “violence” as survival tactics — rebellion and resistance that were necessary. Instead, he said, the new Florida standards are more concerned with “balance,” which he called “educational malpractice.”
Thompson also noted her issues with the personal benefit clause.
“To suggest that there was a benefit to people being enslaved is absolutely ridiculous,” she said in an interview, arguing that the addition removed some accountability from enslavers by insinuating that slavery was not wholly bad.
Paul Finkelman, a legal historian and author of “Encyclopedia of African American History 1619-1895,″ agrees with that characterization. His book was cited by the Florida Department of Education as a reference for the personal benefit claim in the standard.
“I don’t know how you would read this very serious work on the history of African Americans and conclude that anything in this three-volume encyclopedia endorses the notion that slavery is a training ground for slaves,” he said. Finkelman added that, because slave owners never intended to free the people they enslaved, it was “absurd” to insinuate that the skills they taught them were intended for any purpose other than helping slave owners grow richer.
“To have this kind of curriculum denies children the opportunity to learn about our nation’s past and to understand,” Finkelman said. “And if you don’t understand the past, then the present makes no sense.”
What defenders say
William B. Allen and Frances Presley Rice, two members of the working group that drafted the standards, wrote in a statement that they “proudly stand behind these African American History Standards,” which they say “provide comprehensive and rigorous instruction.”
“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,” they said of critiques of the “personal benefit” clause. “Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants.”
In an interview with ABC News, Allen further claimed that the standards do not insinuate that slavery was beneficial but rather that Africans “were able to develop skills and aptitudes which served to their benefit, both while enslaved and after enslavement.”
At the July 19 meeting where the standards were approved, state education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said they cover African American history “in depth.” He added: “There is nothing that is left out.”
Thompson and Johns acknowledged that the majority of the 19 pages of standards are consistent with what one might find in any classroom across the country. But they both said that, beyond the specific points facing heavy criticism, the overarching standards could be more expansive.
“I would give this effort an ‘I’ for incomplete,” Thompson said. “I wouldn’t give a failing grade, but it needs to be more comprehensive.”
For example, the standards don’t include anything on life in Africa before slavery and the impacts that the slave trade had on the continent. There is also nothing about social movements for African Americans post-civil rights. Black Lives Matter, for example, is omitted from the standards.
In addition, critics point to the standards’ focus on recognizing and identifying Black figures who are “palatable and nonthreatening,” in Johns’ words, rather than on the complicated history. While critics point to this focus throughout the curriculum, they especially note the lack of rigor in the K-4 standards, which solely focus on recognizing people, rather than the history itself.
For older students, they say, the standards still fall short. For example, the standards ask students to identify influential Black figures and positive moments in Florida’s history, such as the University of Florida’s integration, but do not ask them to learn about Florida’s role in the slave trade or its secession from the Union during the Civil War.