Let the Dead SpeakThe Right's attack on American History seeks to erase the fullness of our past.
Kevin McCarthy wants to make “wokeness” a thing of the past. The Speaker of the House wants to silence the voices of our ancestors whose stories still teach. He knows resuscitating the voices of the historically dispossessed can be dangerous — especially to beneficiaries who happen to look like him. History allows the dead to speak about Wounded Knee and Jim Crow and Stonewall and Medgar Evers and J. Edgar Hoover and Tuskegee experiments and redlining and grandfather clauses and stolen land and lynched bodies and school disparities.
During Speaker McCarthy’s Jan. 7 inaugural congressional speech, he called attempts to educationally address disparity by a different name. “We’re gonna pass bills to fix the nation’s . . . woke indoctrination in our schools.” “Woke indoctrination” was the post-midnight speech’s biggest applause line, receiving a lusty standing ovation from GOP admirers. Apparently, even a 14-time loser looks good after midnight.
McCarthy’s framing of U.S. history instruction as “woke indoctrination” made his GOP embrace possible. The Republicans are the party of Don’t Teach, Don’t Tell (The Truth). Historian Dexter Blackman suggests that the newly-minted speaker’s speech was simply more repression of the Black experience in America to assuage Trump’s increasingly anxious and vocal white supremacist bloc (what the late Glen Ford, co-founder of the Black Agenda Report, called “the largest coherent electoral force in the nation.”)
“I see McCarthy’s woke indoctrination comments as part of a larger Republican culture wars’ strategy to rally their base,” said Blackman, an assistant professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, who lectures on civil rights and African American history. “Teaching about race brings up the flaws of this nation, the flaws in our moral fabric. So by suppressing Black history, for example, conservatives are suppressing an issue that makes their base feel uncomfortable.”
At the center of the racism and anxiety that is stoking the GOP’s attack on democracy and civil rights is Trump’s white supremacist base. According to data firm Catalist, white people made up 85% of Trump voters in 2020. The feelings of white people matter, and drive GOP education legislation. We know this truth to be self-evident because thinly-veiled concern for white feelings is embedded in Florida’s Individual Freedom Act—commonly known as the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act— and similar legislation winding through numerous GOP-controlled state legislatures. Stop WOKE prohibits classroom instruction that makes students “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”
The law’s vague language makes its enforcement extremely subjective and extremely dangerous. This may explain why in November, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a preliminary injunction against Stop WOKE for violating the First and 14th Amendments and called it “positively dystopian.”
If a high school advanced placement African American studies teacher teaches a history unit on U.S. slavery and uses slave narratives like those found in John Blassingame’s “Slave Testimony” (or the primary sources from which it was drawn), white students may be exposed to horrific accounts of industrialized rape, physical mutilation, castrations and the lynching and burnings of Black bodies by white people. It would not be surprising for a white student to feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress knowing that American members of their race routinely treated fellow Americans in this depraved way. However, under the vague Stop WOKE Act these white feelings could be used to justify the filing of a lawsuit against the school and possibly the teacher.
That’s dangerous. And scary. And that’s the point.
The hypothetical AP African American studies history unit will not be taught in Florida since Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration banned the course on Jan. 12 because it “lacks educational value and is contrary to Florida law.” DeSantis’ broadside against education and learning is a disturbing reminder that the attack on woke education is at its core an attack on the education of Black people. DeSantis has become the symbolic descendant of Master Hugh Auld who tried to prevent future abolitionist Frederick Douglass from learning to read.
“The very decided manner with which [Master Hugh Auld] spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction . . . to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read,” Douglass wrote in his autobiography.
Like Master Hugh Auld, Master Ron DeSantis thinks there are evil consequences to educating Black people — especially about our history, culture and achievements. It is not a stretch to imagine Gov. DeSantis privately saying the words about a Black student that Douglass attributes to Master Auld, “If you teach [Douglass], to read there would be no keeping him.”
The attack on woke education is part of a larger Lost Cause revenge fantasy (Civil War reenactments are popular for a reason) that Southern republicans like Master DeSantis are now making dangerously real. After attacking AP African American studies, Southern Republicans will lead the next charge to attack African American studies programs in America’s public universities by passing legislation that withholds state funding from universities with Black studies programs. Republicans will publicly say that these programs lack educational value and violate state law. Republicans will privately say, “If you teach Blacks to read about their history, culture and achievements there will be no keeping them.”
Politically-educated Black folks freely taking the streets saying that our lives matter is the manifested GOP fear of “there will be no keeping them.” That’s why Republicans are attacking woke education like a Lost Cause army of overseers.
Fear is their most effective whip. Republicans in numerous states want to scare teachers, schools and school districts from teaching history that shines a light on the extraordinary depravity that white folks have visited upon people of color — Black folk in particular — to accrue wealth and other types of socioeconomic and political benefits to white folks.
According to the UCLA School of Law Critical Race Studies Program, there have been 563 efforts introduced to limit how race is taught at the local, state and federal levels. At the local level, school board politics have become especially contentious — and frightening for teachers and administrators. “The school board meetings in my area have been very intense,” said an administrator from a Fort Worth, Texas, school district, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of retaliation. “You have to be careful.”
The Fort Worth administrator believes that the push in Texas to limit classroom discussions about race hurts the students. “It’s important for kids to understand history so they can appreciate their lives. So they can know what has gone on. By taking discussions about race out of the classroom, we are erasing a whole culture. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you are going,” she said.
Speaker McCarthy and his fellow Republicans don’t want U.S. children to know where they’ve been. The GOP is scared that if young people keep learning about who paid the Blood Price to Make America Great, they’ll keep sympathizing with the descendants of Blood Price payers. The throngs of young white people at 2020 Black Lives Matter protests was that GOP fear made manifest. In response to their fear, Republicans are scaring teachers whose job is to bring buried voices from the past into American classrooms. As concerned citizens, our job is to love America enough to ensure that the dead speak, louder than the Speaker of the House — and louder than the Republicans who embrace him in the darkness they share.Wait, before you go…
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