While teaching American history survey courses at Fresno State, I handed out questionnaires on the first day of class. Three key questions were 1) How do you view historical events (conservatively, liberally or radically) and why?; 2) What do you think was the most important event in your lifetime and why?; and 3) Who were Jackie Robinson, Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis and Margaret Sanger as historical figures?
After collecting the questionnaires, I gave this short but important commentary: “We are going to study our national history and the stories within it. And it is critical that each of you not place yourself in the chaotic or the inspirational past we are going to study.
“None of you were there, and so you should not identify with either the inspirational stories or the non-inspirational stories. Be objective in your study and research, and do not bring emotion into your attempt to make sense of the nation’s past.”
At present, there is a cultural war over the ingredients of history. Which facts should be taught, and which ignored? Selected facts of African American history have been deemed too dangerous for the hearts and minds of young people to intellectually ingest.
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has called these historical ingredients “woke,” which means for him and many conservative Republicans something morbidly obese intellectually. This term has been co-opted from its positive meaning within Black culture that defined “woke” as being informed and hip to the real world in which they live, for example, racial inequality, sexism, ageism and the plight of family members who cannot find a decent “slave,” which, in the hood, means a decent job.
DeSantis was concerned with a new Advanced Placement (AP) course focusing on African American history. The dialectic or clash between how DeSantis and other conservatives want to cherry-pick history and the truth that should be taught, as argued by the Black intellectual community, or what W.E.B. DuBois called the “Talented Tenth,” rages on with the cultural wars.
These Black thinkers label Nat Turner as a Black freedom fighter, whereas DeSantis and his “two live crew” of like conservatives label Turner as a “menace to society” who should be deleted from the AP course. The struggle over the historical past between the forces of light and darkness has been real since the NAACP organized a boycott, in 1915, of the racist, ahistorical film, Birth of a Nation.
One should keep in mind the ignorance visited upon American students when the historical truth is hidden from them and let history be their guide. In the 1960s, the young white students of the “counterculture” movement became angry when they learned about poverty in what author Michael Harrington called the “Other America.”
The students, isolated in the new 1950s “vanilla suburbs” of endless whiteness, became “awoke” to Harrington’s description of poverty on the other side of the proverbial tracks. Coupled with the awokeness resulting from the glaring war in Vietnam and the King-led civil rights movement, this awoke generation demanded a relevant education system that would advance their minds.
I see this today after perusing decades of answers on my questionnaires. Students tend to think differently depending on time, place and our political culture.
In the 1970s, students tended to answer that they are more liberal, whereas in the age of Nixon, Ford, Wallace, Reagan and the two Bushes, students tended to answer that question as they are more conservative. What is interesting, no matter what decade, students overall did not know the three famous individuals.
Most students answered the most important event in their lifetime was either the civil rights movement, the war against terrorism or climate change. Only a few students answered police brutality, Black Lives Matter or gender-identity concerns.
DeSantis and others want American students not to be awoke to these issues but asleep in “La La Land.” However, the American people should be aware or awoke to this sleeping bear of ignorance that abounds in the dark curriculum today—thus, the counterproposal of lightness, the AP course. If AP in African American history is stopped, then America will continue to “educate” a nation of ahistorical, imbecilic citizens who live in fear of the truths of the past.
In 1970, while teaching at Binghamton University, I taught a course on the civil rights movement. I selected a text by Julius Lester entitled Look Out Whitey, Black Power Gon’ Get Your Mama. A high-level conservative administrator decided that the book should be banned.
Today, in several southern “red” states, politicians have led a movement to ban a wide variety of not only books but also discussion topics such as Black Lives Matter, Black queer studies, Black Power, critical race theory and books concerning the life and times of Roberto Clemente, Leroy Jones (Amiri Baraka), Malcolm X and many more.
Florida’s DeSantis and a state education board said the AP in African American history “lacks educational value,” and DeSantis had the state legislature pass the Stop Woke Act. In response, Florida experienced a statewide student walkout called “Stand for Freedom,” voicing their support for diversity and equity, which included racial minorities and LGBTQ+.
The banning is driven by the fear of learning history from the bottom up, such as workers and their class struggle against capitalists, feminists and their struggle against male chauvinism, Hispanics and their struggle against racism, and Blacks’ struggle up from slavery.
White Republican conservatives, controlling various state legislatures, argue that the banning is to protect white students from “feeling guilt” or “feeling uncomfortable” as they study the national history. Ironically, Black students have the same emotions, and that is why few Black students select Africana studies as their major.
Black students say it is difficult to study African American history that reveals “the blood of the slaughtered.” Jewish students have the same emotions when studying the Holocaust or Armenian students taking a course on their genocide by the Ottomans, or the original Native American “Indians” studying the massacre at Wounded Knee or countless other white “holocaust” type aggressions.
Tracking their ancestors’ pain and suffering is uncomfortable. On this point, does the AP course that covers Buffalo soldiers require students to examine the contractions of Black men killing Red men for white men.
This brings me to an important point, which is that within African American intellectual thought, there has been a thriving debate on how to understand the historical narrative. It began with the 1970 book, Black Nationalism, and the co-editors could not agree on the ebb and flow of Black history.
The two white authors, Elliot Rudwick and August Meier, argued the narrative arc is toward integration, and the young Black editor, John Bracey, argued that arc leaned toward separation. Bracey cites Henry Highland Garnett and Martin Delany and, of course, Marcus Garvey, who all sought a homeland in Africa while DuBois helped organize the NAACP, which became the iconic civil rights integrationist organization.
The controversy over African American AP courses is not far removed from how historians divisively view the Black historical past. In creating such a course, would the content emphasize Garvey or DuBois, Delany or Booker T. Washington, Angela Davis or Rosa Parks?
Interestingly, DeSantis and other conservatives are not even aware of one important knowledge unit missing from the AP in African American history, which is information about African Americans on the left, sans Angela Davis.
Three towering figures who should be included are Peter H. Clark, Paul Robeson and Carlotta Bass. Clark was a contemporary of Frederick Douglass, and both spoke on the anti-slavery lecture circuit. Clark, in the 1890s, organized the Workingmen’s Party. He is known as America’s first Black socialist.
Paul Robeson was a giant and champion of the Russian revolution and, during the Cold War, said that Blacks should not fight against Russia, which was trying to build an anti-racist worker state.
Bass was an activist in Los Angeles in the 1930s and helped, with Louisa Moreno, to form an Afro-Chicano coalition. In 1952, Bass was selected as the vice president for the Progressive Party as it attempted to attain the presidency.
History and memory are embedded in the contested soil of America’s past. Black Lives Matter and to be awake to and fight against injustice and for freedom is a constant struggle opposed by the Republican Party and its MAGA base.
The controversy surrounding such things as the National History Standards of the 1990s is now being played out over an AP course in African American history. The stakes are immense in that whoever controls how the past is remembered not only controls the mass consciousness of those living in the present but also their descendants in the future.