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Frustrated by Florida's changes to Black history curriculum? A scholar urges people to speak up

 Dr. James B. Stewart is a resident of Sarasota, and is well-known author, economist and scholar of Black studies.
WUSF Public Media
Dr. James B. Stewart is a resident of Sarasota, and is well-known author, economist and scholar of Black studies.

Florida has barred students from taking a new Advanced Placement (AP) African-American studies course, and changed its curriculum for learning Black history in grades K-12, raising concern among historians and teachers who say the state is going backward, and these moves will put Florida students at a disadvantage.

James Stewart is a Sarasota resident and a senior fellow at the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at the New School in New York. He’s the author of a popular textbook called Introduction to African-American Studies, and professor emeritus at Penn State University.

This conversation has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

What’s your overall reaction to the changes Florida put in place this summer regarding the standards for teaching Black history?

Well, I'm very disappointed in the direction because it's doing a disservice to our students. Florida graduates are going to be entering a world that is increasingly multicultural, and requires emotional intelligence and information about different cultures and backgrounds and the ability to work closely with people whom you may not have had an opportunity to interact with over the course of your education. And so our students are going to be at an extreme disadvantage in comparison to students from other jurisdictions where a more open approach to education is being practiced.

What do you see as the most troubling changes in the state’s standards?

As context, if you compare the new standards to the old standards, you can see a lot of retrenchment. They use the term slaves in the new curriculum. But modern historians don't use that term. They use 'enslaved Blacks.' And when they talk about formerly enslaved, we don't use that term. It's 'emancipated Blacks.' And the reason for that language is because it shows that the Blacks were being oppressed, as opposed to it being some sort of status that they inherited or incurred. So that's one of the challenges.

Another challenge is that, in the old standards, elementary school students became familiar with the fact that Blacks in America originated in Africa. But under the new standards, you don't talk about Africa until you get to sixth to eighth grade. And one of the principal thrusts of the new discussion about Africa is to show that somehow slavery originated in Africa, as if that somehow justified the type of chattel slavery that we had in the US.

The whole notion that Blacks benefited from slavery really takes away from the fact that many of the skills that Africans brought to the United States were used to enhance the economic development of the United States, in areas like rice cultivation. One of the interesting examples is Uncle Nearest’s whiskey. Nathan 'Nearest' Green was an enslaved Black man who taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey.

So clearly, the skills already existed in a variety of areas, including blacksmithing, and so forth. And plantation owners were able to exploit those skills and not provide appropriate compensation to enslaved Blacks who they had control over.

What are the dangers of not teaching children all that we now know about Black history?

One of the questions is, why do we study history? And one of the reasons is that we want to avoid the mistakes that have been made in the past, so we try to examine some of the forces and some of the policies and procedures that were put in place so that we can identify contemporary parallels that are problematic for democracy and for equal treatment. And when you don't do that, as the old trope goes, history repeats itself.

And I think we're seeing the same sort of retrenchment that we saw, after the Reconstruction Era in the 1900s, reoccurring. Efforts to try to roll back voting rights, issues related to college admissions, policies, and so forth are all part of that retrenchment effort. It's very alarming, and I think very dysfunctional, as we try to move forward as a society to take advantage of all the developments that are occurring in the 21st century.

What’s your view of Florida’s approval of PragerU Kids videos for grades K-6? Critics say they downplay slavery, or misrepresent the facts of history. PragerU says they are pushing back against a liberal agenda that has taken over schools.

The effort to try to suggest that what has been going on in the schools, so called wokeness, is propaganda, really. I think it is a misdirected type of critique. I think what has been happening in schools is simply the effort to try to promote critical thinking as it relates to issues, and to be willing to accept the fact that we're not a perfect nation, there are no perfect nations and that we want to learn from our mistakes in order to improve.

I continue to serve as a member of the equity advisory panel for the Pittsburgh Public Schools. That body was created in 1996 to try to address issues of underachievement of African-American students, the lack of representation in the curriculum, the lack of representation among the teaching corps, and so forth. And I was the chair of that body for a long time. But that's a district that is willing to try to address the issues in a very forthright manner. What we see happening locally with the school board is really extremely disappointing to me. That’s one reason why I prefer to work in Pittsburgh than in Sarasota on K-12 education.

What can done about this? There are many people who say this type of approach cannot stand.

One of the initial efforts has been to establish Freedom Schools, the local branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History just completed a multisession Freedom School, and I think St. Petersburg branch has also organized one. And I think there are some other church-based organizations as well as perhaps the NAACP that are planning to do the same.

I think the key for those to be successful and to build momentum is that we have to get broad participation in those type of institutions not simply by people of color, but also majority group parents and children who really don't like what's going on with the curriculum and the way in which the schools are moving.

Secondly, I think we need to have a presence at the school board meetings, the same type of presence that we saw among those who led to the ouster of the previous superintendent here in Sarasota and the efforts to try to cut back on diversity, equity and inclusion instruction, etc.

And thirdly, I think we need to have more voices in the public space about these issues to make the community more aware of the downsides of what's going on, as opposed to allowing sloganeering to carry the day.

It seems to me that we know so much more about Black history than we did a generation or more ago. What are some of the things that we should be teaching to our children now, that we did not in the past?

One of the projects that I just completed is a rewrite of my textbook, Introduction to African American Studies. It's a college level textbook that's used by about 25 different colleges and universities and the new edition brings things up to date, because I hadn't really done a complete rewrite for quite a while.

What I tried to do in the new version is to capture the current controversies and dialogue as it relates to issues like voter suppression, like the anti-diversity, equity and inclusion issue. I was the vice provost for educational equity at Penn State before I retired, so I was in charge of all the DEI initiatives for the entire Penn State system, so that one strikes at me also.

I think I've also tried to make clear that the range of the experiences of African-Americans span all aspects of human activity and we need to recognize that as not simply a sort of contribution to the American experience, but something that's worthy of study in its own right.

I dealt with the COVID pandemic and the impact that it's had disproportionately on people of color. And I've updated work about people of color in the military, because that's an important lever by which people have been able to move in the middle class and in the heroism that has been shown by people of color in the military demonstrates their commitment to American values, at least those that are on paper. And so hopefully, those who read the book will learn as well as enjoy the topics that are covered.

And I've been in discussion with some of the persons who are involved in developing the AP African-American Studies course, and we're hoping that the new version of this textbook will be made available to the instructors, so they at least have some resources that they can draw on.

Here in Florida, of course, we won't be teaching that course. But I've tried to broaden my impact outside of Florida, as well as being available to assist in whatever efforts we can to try and change the trajectory here.

That’s right, the new AP African-American studies course was banned by the state of Florida earlier this year. The state said it “lacked educational value.”

That's the current ruling by the State Board of Education. And the one of the interesting elements of that is that one of the arguments that they have used to justify the fact that they don't need to teach this particular course, is that we do have these African-American history standards. But even under the old standards, only 14 of the 67 counties in Florida were teaching the standards adequately based upon an analysis that was done. So, we were already failing. And now it's going to get worse as a result of efforts to try to introduce the new standards and to prevent students who are interested in taking AP courses in this area from doing so.

And for me, it's also interesting if you compare what happened with the AP African-American Studies course, with the AP Psychology course. We saw the state back down on that (AP Psychology) because there were so many students that were going to be affected by that. And it was clearly going to hamper their ability to move through their collegiate curriculum at a pace that they wanted to. But in the case of the African-American studies course, you can see a very different treatment, because it did not conform to the way in which the government would like to have Black history represented.

What else can people do?

That's why I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about these issues, because I think we just need more voices. The National Association for the Study of African American Life and History conference is in Jacksonville next month. And there'll be a number of sessions devoted to this particular topic and to try and strategize ways that we can address the issues not simply in Florida but nationwide because other states are trying to model their approach after Florida's and I'll be actively involved in those discussions as well.

Can you see my T shirt? It says Black History Matters. This was produced by the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Pete. So again, I think in every way possible, through various mediums, we really do have to push back.

When people push back against so-called woke ideologies, or DEI, what are they actually doing?

What they're really doing is trying to stop — to push back against demographic changes that are happening in this country. By 2050, the expectation is that people of color will constitute a majority of the US population. And when DEI was first originated, it was seen as being an alternative to affirmative action, and affirmative action sort of treated white males as a benchmark and compared the outcomes for other groups with them. But what DEI was designed to do is to show that everybody has a role to play in society.

And unfortunately, what has happened is that the efforts to try to help people understand unconscious racism and issues of bias have been misinterpreted as being attacks on white males. Which is really unfortunate, because a lot of the data shows that if you have diverse teams that are working on an issue, you tend to get better outcomes and better decisions than if you just have group think.

So, diversity, equity, and inclusion is really an important component of the efforts to try to maintain the economic progress of a state, of a country, etc. There have also been efforts to curtail social investing and all of those, in my estimation, are misguided because they really work to limit economic growth potential and the ability of people to interact comfortably across cultures.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.
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