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If “Woke” Dies, Our Nation’s Truths Die with It

Ron DeSantis wants to retrofit history to conform to conservative ideology.

The problems with the revised standards, colored by the peculiarities of the Stop WOKE Act, go beyond one sentence about the personal benefits of slavery. The previous curricular guidelines were fine, but the workgroup threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. It is setting students up for failure to acquire a basic understanding of African American history, and they will not be equipped as students headed to college or as informed citizens regardless of their future educational pursuits.

Let’s look at how the history of the slavery era is covered. If a central objective of the curriculum is to amplify African Americans as skilled, three-dimensional humans, a good place to start would be prior to their arrival in the American colonies. But the standards say almost nothing about societies in West Africa and West Central Africa beyond the fact that they practiced their own forms of slavery and were “reciprocal” partners in the Atlantic slave trade, which they were not. What about the skills Africans brought with them as agriculturalists, blacksmiths, dressmakers, ironmakers, basket weavers, musicians, woodworkers, equestrians, poets, linguists, and intellectuals, many of which made them attractive for enslavement? What about the varieties of cultures, languages, aesthetic practices, and religious beliefs? Such necessary background helps students to understand the sources of strength, resiliency, and courage that enslaved people later drew on and passed on to their heirs. This was a vital part of the previous so-called woke curriculum that the “anti-woke” revisions have eliminated.

The new standards focus disproportionate attention on how Europeans suffered under serfdom, servitude, and slavery. A section is devoted to the Barbary pirates, who kidnapped Europeans and sold them to “Muslim countries” — again, as part of the African American history curriculum. European indentured servitude in the American colonies is discussed repeatedly from grades 6 through 12 — an exploitative system for sure, but not the same as slavery. Slavery in Europe, Asia, and Africa are featured frequently. All of this reinforces another popular trope: the enslavement of Black people in the United States is insignificant because slavery was everywhere and white people were slaves, too. This is one step removed from popular myths about the “Irish slave trade” in the U.S. While comparisons are informative, it is more pertinent to explain the origins, purposes, and distinctiveness of slavery in the overarching Atlantic system and how the various colonies in North and South America differed — but that gets little attention.