Vintage illustration represents the emancipation of Southern slaves at the end of the American Civil War. This image contrasts the life of a slave and that of a free man’s life. Getty Images Stock Illustration
After Florida issued its new social studies academic standards for 2023, the following lesson was opposed: Students will examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves. The instruction will include how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.
The new standards, according to critics on both sides of the political aisle, “require middle school students to be taught that the experience of slavery was beneficial to African Americans because it helped them acquire skills.” Critics called the new standards revisionist history, done on purpose to minimize the brutal conditions of slavery.
In order to draw that conclusion, the critics performed what theologians call an eisegesis. That is, reading into the text a meaning that is not there.
Workgroup members of Florida’s African American History Standards, Dr. Willian Allen and Dr. Frances Presley Rice, told the media, “It’s disappointing, but nevertheless unsurprising, that critics would reduce months of work to create Florida’s first ever stand-alone strand of African-American History Standards to a few isolated expressions without context.”
Dr. Allen noted in an interview that the new standards do not declare that slavery was beneficial. He also stated, “We’re talking about the experience of oppression and how people respond to the experience of oppression, and we want people to recognize that there’s an opposite to Stockholm Syndrome. People don’t necessarily simply embrace their oppressors when they’re oppressed. They also react adaptively, and they find ways to make pathways for themselves even in the presence of oppression.”
Since the critics were too preoccupied with their historical eisegesis, they never inquired about what theologians call an exegesis. That simply means determining the meaning of the text based on its original context.
The lesson in question teaches children that slaves learned trades to perform a variety of tasks. Did the detractors want to know the significance of the lesson? Of course not, because academic standards aren’t important to them. Their goal was to smear Florida’s governor, who is running for president. That’s par for the course for presidential candidates, and that’s the governor’s problem. However, when political smear tactics are regarded as genuine critiques of academic standards, significant lessons are lost.
By the time students reach middle school, they’re only aware of generalizations regarding slavery, such as slaves working in fields. The lesson in question teaches children that slaves were more than just field laborers. In some cases, many slaves acquired trades and utilized their skills to buy their freedom.
For example, in the National Humanities Center Resources Tool Box: The Making of African American Identity: Vol. 1, 1500–1865, there’s a section titled On Buying One’s Freedom: Selections From 18th and 19th Century Slave Narratives. In one story, the narrator, William Troy, stated that his father was a slave. Troy’s father made boots and shoes and became a first-class workman. He then contracted himself out using the legal means required. He was living on a plantation called Hunter’s Hill at the time. He afterwards relocated to Loretto, a village in the same county. There, his shoe-selling business grew quickly, and he soon had enough money to buy his freedom.
Slave narratives offer several examples demonstrating that “slaves developed skills that, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
If critics said that there were so few cases of slaves purchasing their freedom that it shouldn’t be addressed in a history class due to time limits, that’s a valid point to examine. However, despite all evidence from primary sources to the contrary, opponents have doubled down on their historical eisegesis and asserted that enslaved people could not use their abilities to provide for themselves until they were emancipated.
Politics aside, the most serious question in this controversy is: Why are the detractors trying to suppress these facts?
Unfortunately, the lesson does not correspond with their understanding of what it means to be Black in America. A few years ago, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s website displayed a “whiteness chart” in their Talking About Race section. According to the chart, these qualities “normalize White dominate culture.”
1). Rugged individualism, self-reliance, and placing a high value on independence and autonomy.
2). A Protestant work ethic, i.e., hard work, is the key to success.
3). Future orientation, i.e., plan for the future, delayed gratification, “tomorrow will be better.”
Clearly, oppression-centric critics feel slaves who utilized their skills to buy their freedom are a reflection of the dominant White culture and do not represent the actual African American experience during slavery.
Put differently, slaves who used their skills for personal benefit are examples of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Which is an idea that oppression-centric critics do not want taught in African American history.