A social studies curriculum recently approved by the Florida Board of Education is facing backlash over instruction regarding the history of slavery in the United States.
The language in question states that Africans enslaved in America developed skills that could benefit them personally.
Vice President Kamala Harris brought up the curriculum in numerous speeches soon after, claiming, “In the state of Florida, they decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery,” and later asking, “How is it that anyone could suggest that amidst these atrocities [of slavery], there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?”
What’s the specific language used in the curriculum?
The entire social studies curriculum is available online, with the specific language in question appearing on pages 6 and 71.
The controversial language appears in section SS.68.AA.2, which aims to “Analyze events that involved or affected Africans from the founding of the nation through Reconstruction.” One of the listed benchmarks in this section aims to “Examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).”
That benchmark contains a clarifying note, reading:
“Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
This language is included in the curriculum for grades 6-8.
The clarifying note is one piece of a larger curriculum covering the African American experience over centuries, including information on the underground railroad, abolitionist efforts, race massacres, and more.
Those objecting to the language in the curriculum are questioning why the Florida school board feels as though it is necessary to include this note highlighting the potential benefits of slavery on the enslaved peoples.
Whitewashing History or Highlighting Resilience?
“This curriculum is devoted to telling the truth, whereas Kamala Harris had retold a lie. It may only have been a falsehood the first time she stated it, but when you repeat a falsehood, it becomes a lie.
“Permit me to have Frederick Douglass tell her. He wrote an autobiography, in which he described how the mistress of his slave owner began to teach him to read. She pulled back the curtain through which a glimmer of light shone, before the master forced her to close it.
“But that glimmer of light was enough for Frederick Douglass to illuminate a bright flame, that he exploited to his benefit and his country’s benefit thereafter.
“Such examples are numerous and they are retelling the stories of people who suffered the indignity of slavery, time and again."
Politifact (Lean Left bias) asked a handful of experts on black history about this curriculum. The broad consensus was that slaves may have occasionally developed skills, but this was not too common, and including the note in the curriculum is strange.
The piece quotes Marvin Dunn, a psychology professor emeritus at Florida International University, stating:
“Most enslaved people had no special skills at all that benefited them following their enslavement. For almost all their skill was picking cotton. An enslaved man who was made to be a blacksmith might have been a king had he not been captured and taken from his country. Is he supposed to be grateful? Enslavement prevented people from becoming who and what they might have been and that was slavery's greatest injury to humankind.”
Carol Anderson, an African American studies professor at Emory University, is quoted stating:
“[The curriculum] has the racist underpinning of treating Africans as if they had no skills prior to being kidnapped from their homelands and trafficked to America. In fact, it was Africans’ skills in cultivating tobacco, sugar and rice that proved beneficial to the enslavers and built the inordinate wealth of the United States. The question itself is dehumanizing.”
In the Media: Party-Line Divide
In the media, the controversy is divided roughly along party lines, highlighting the need for consuming different perspectives on the issue to avoid being misled.
On the left, a writer in MSNBC (Left bias) called the curriculum a “blatant distortion of the past” and accused the task force that created the instruction of trying to “erase the perspectives of Black people in the classroom — and whitewash American history.”
On the right, the National Review (Right bias) Editorial Board called media coverage of criticism of the curriculum from left-rated outlets to be a “dishonest smear” and argued that critics on the left want historical education to exclusively frame black people as victims, stating, “Telling black American history truthfully should impart a sense that, while slavery was evil and immoral, period, slaves nonetheless made choices for the benefit of themselves and their families.”
It must be noted— Harris has political incentive to attack Florida’s government at any opportunity. While Donald Trump is likely going to be the Republican nominee for 2024, there remains a chance that his legal troubles pull him from the race, opening the door for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to secure the nomination and face off against President Biden and VP Harris.
But were her comments misinformation? It’s difficult to assert whether her statement that the instruction teaches “enslaved people benefited from slavery” is true or false. Technically, the instruction states the skills acquired while enslaved could be beneficial.
Some would agree with her framing, while others may see her comment as overly broad. But that comes down to personal bias rather than hard facts.
Media and politicians alike tend to paint the opposing side with a broad brush. Avoid being misled by this hyperpartisan tactic.
Get multiple views and reports from across the political spectrum on whatever issue you’re reading about. Read more of our recent Misinformation Watch blogs.
Isaiah Anthony is the Deputy Blog Editor of AllSides. He has a Center bias.