Florida Department of Education's Black History Month Essay Contest Seems to Want Students to Write Things They're Not Allowed to Learn

It's kind of odd, really. I mean, I know that Florida Republicans would say that they're not opposed to students learning African American history and culture, even after their governor, Ron DeSantis, a man who always looks like he's looking forward to when he'll get to complain to the manager again, refused to allow an Advanced Placement course in African American Studies in Florida high schools. I know that Florida Republicans would say they're not racist, even as they attack any teaching of history that might make white people uncomfortable as "indoctrination" and "critical race theory," terms they neither understand nor care to understand.  

And I know that the Florida Department of Education would say that they support teaching African American history, even encouraging teachers to have "age-appropriate" discussions on "how the freedoms of persons have been infringed by sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination, including topics related to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in sexism, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination, including how recognition of these freedoms have overturned these unjust laws." Of course, "classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent with the principles of this subsection or state academic standards."

And what are those standards? "No person is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex" is one. And "Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are not racist but fundamental to the right to pursue happiness and be rewarded for industry." Not to mention "A person, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex." Oh, and the curriculum is now "Stories of Inspiration," about Americans who "demonstrate important life skills and the principles of individual freedom that enabled individuals to prosper even in the most difficult circumstances."

To go along with all that inspiration, the Florida DOE is sponsoring a Black History Month essay contest, open to all 4th-12th graders. Just 500 words long. It's actually called the "Governor Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis’ Black History Month Essay Contest," so irony's head is spinning. The subject? "In the contest, students are encouraged to write about an African American who has had a notable effect on their community. The subject of the essay should be an African American Floridian." Then they give examples of some of the potential subjects. And here's where it gets weird.

For instance, the website lists James Weldon Johnson and describes him as a "Writer, civil rights activist, and a leader of the NAACP. He wrote 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' which is known as the black national anthem." Sure, none of that is a lie. But Johnson's major work is the 1912 Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a novel about a biracial man in the post-Reconstruction period, living everywhere from Jacksonville to New York to Paris. And that book is about how whiteness is forced on Black people through legal, social, and cultural means, which, if you wanna get right down to it, is what critical race theory is about. Johnson writes, "I believe it to be a fact that the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them." He also writes, "So far as racial differences go, the United States puts a greater premium on color, or, better, lack of color, than upon anything else in the world." 

The book also has a graphic description of a lynching, which was an issue that Johnson devoted a great deal of energy to. In 1917, in response to multiple lynching incidents, as well as the destruction of Black-owned homes and businesses and the murder of dozens of Black people by rioting whites in East St. Louis, Illinois, Johnson,  then a vice president in the NAACP, organized a protest of 10,000 Black people marching down 5th Avenue in New York City. The flyers for the event are critical of the white political and power structures that oppress Black people, including things like "We march because the growing consciousness and solidarity of race coupled with sorrow and discrimination have made us one." Another line is a confrontation: "Your hands are full of blood."

Johnson wrote articles about the American occupation of Haiti, decrying the rapes and murders committed by Marines and declaring in 1920, "The United States has absolutely failed in Haiti. It has failed to accomplish any results that justify its military Occupation of that country." And he lobbied Congress to pass a national anti-lynching law, which got through the House but failed in the Senate (and the nation had to wait until last year for any federal bill to be passed on lynching). 

So, yeah, a student could write an essay about James Weldon Johnson, but they'd be hard-pressed to write it in a way that didn't completely defy what Republicans believe should be how African American history should be told. Johnson didn't see a few bad white apples spoiled the bunch. He saw an entire race basing its power on hatred of another race and violently using that power repeatedly. Sorry if that makes white people feel the sads.

There are others on that list that are head-scratchers. Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs? Yes, during Reconstruction, he held positions like Secretary of State of Florida. He also was a strong abolitionist and minister who spoke the day after the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, saying, "It is for white men to show that they are equal to the demands of these times, by putting away their stupid prejudices.”

There's also the Florida Highwaymen, described as "a group of 26 African American landscape artists who painted from the 1950s to the 1980s. They became some of Florida’s most well-known painters and focused on images of the state’s natural treasures." What really happened is that segregation caused them to be locked out of galleries, so they were forced to travel around, selling their paintings. Indeed, since this was fairly recent, it's possible that a kid's grandparents were jerks to the artists.

Florida's Department of Education wants to have its cake and shovel it down its ignorant throat, too. Yes, you can learn the history of Black people in this country. Yes, you can write an essay on one of the "Stories of Inspiration." But you can't deal with what the reality of that history without saying that the reason those lives became inspiring is because they faced down systemic racism that was built into the United States and Florida. These aren't stories about overcoming individual obstacles on the way to success. They're not about how this mean white person or that misguided white person hindered them. They are about people who confronted an embedded evil, and it's not "indoctrination" to call the racist history of our country "evil." It's just true.