Resistance to Gov. DeSantis Is Part of a Long-Standing Tradition

In the struggle to define how U.S. history is taught in K-12 spaces, Gov. Ron DeSantis has attacked the piloted AP course in African-American History; making it unavailable to Florida students. In response to Gov. DeSantis, three high school students have sued the state of Florida to allow for the course to be taught. 

In his rationale for why Florida wouldn’t make the course available for students, DeSantis said the course lacked “educational value and historical accuracy.” However, having read through the course framework contributed by NBC News, there is value and accuracy to be found.

One such place is within the second unit which discusses “freedom, enslavement and resistance.” The key word here is resistance.

Too often, enslavement and freedom within the American story are taught without making the connection to Black resistance. During my own K-12 experiences, stories of Black resistance to enslavement were rarely taught apart from one or two examples. As a history teacher, I can say that much of the history curricula and textbooks I’ve encountered are reminiscent to my own experiences.

That unfortunate reality inspired me to write Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids. But it also informs my teacher praxis, where Black resistance is a theme in our classroom learning and discussions of enslavement. That  is a form of resistance all its own; a tradition dating back to the works of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History.

Woodson’s life’s work was dedicated to legitimatize the historical traditions of people of African descent. It stemmed from his critiques of the limited history curriculum that disregarded Black people as viable people of history found in his formal academic studies, as well as with the formal studies of Black children in schools.

To that end, Woodson created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) where he became the most prominent Black textbook writer of his time. His texts include, The Negro in Our History (1922), Negro Makers of History (1928), and The Story of the Negro Retold (1935).

Along with his establishing of Negro History Week, Woodson positioned schools as a hub of Black resistance against the mission of some groups to instill a white supremacist version of history in generations of American children.

While history curriculum and textbooks of the early 20th century was filled with falsehoods that affirmed the idea of Black inferiority—falsehoods like scientific racism, racial propaganda, “happy slaves,”  and the Lost Cause—Woodson’s textbooks, as well as his Negro History Bulletin, served as an alternative to subvert the master narrative.

In his book, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Dr. Jarvis Givens gave an account of Black teachers and students who switched from using racists texts to the use of Woodson’s text once out of the watchful eye of white administrators who expected those racist text to be used during classroom instruction.

Black teachers understood that educating with purpose necessitated upsetting the imposed racist curriculum. Black students knew the difference between the dominant curriculum and the expectation of white education authorities with that of Black teacher purpose for them, empowered by the scholarship of Woodson.

From studying from the Negro History Bulletin, displaying what they’ve learned over the school year during Negro History Week and singing Lift Every Voice and Sing daily, Black students were introduced to resistance. One such student was activist and scholar Angela Davis. Davis underscored that Black students engaged in a collective critique of the normative white curriculum… linking Black learning and the work of teachers with a radical history of Black subversive educational practices.

It was those students, like Davis, taught by Black teachers and introduced to resistance would participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Resistance in segregated schools, with the guidance of Carter Woodson made for their immediate impact in the classroom and future policy victories in the country.

Those victories notwithstanding, Black people continued to resist in education spaces out of necessity, thanks to Brown decision in part.

Black students entered largely anti-Black learning spaces and were met with resistance; in the form of erasure of an authentic telling of Black history and Black humanity. They met that resistance with resistance by way of boycotts and protest, achieving Black studies courses. Sadly, those courses fizzled. But it wasn’t by happenstance.

The Brown decision facilitated the closure of Black schools, not white schools, and therefore it was Black teachers and administrators—the very people who Woodson disseminated textbooks and the Black History Bulletin to—that were displaced and exited from the profession. School districts made no serious effort to hire Black teachers. In 1971, Black teachers made up only 8% of all teachers throughout the country.

Over fifty years later, the percentage of Black teachers nationally is under 7%. But I digress.

It wasn’t simply that Black studies courses were boring. All-white schools had no desire or to teach these courses, let alone craft them to be engaging. Negro History Week wasn’t acknowledged or observed at all-white schools. Neither was the Black experience within the curriculum. That in addition to the removal of Black educators and it produced Black studies courses less than engaging and transformative.

For example, Black students protested for a Black studies course at Lane High School, in Charlottesville, VA in the late 1960s. While the course blueprint came from Virginia State University professor, Dr. Edgar Toppin, white teachers were indifferent to the task; at worse, they were antagonistic while there lacking school administrator support.

Had Dr. Toppin taught the course at Lane High, like a similar course was taught by Mr. James Wright at Eau Claire High School in Columbia, SC—a Black teacher with the support of his principal—the course might have thrived.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, students across the country have called for more Black history to be reflected in school curricula, mirroring the resistance of Black students during the 1960s. However, students today face similar pushback against that as did students of the past. Those demands are met with policymakers decrying “woke politics” while enacting legislation that neuters Black history to not make white people feel guilt for the sins of their country.

Yet Black students continue to participate in a long lineage of Black resistance. The 3 students suing the state of Florida as a result of their rejecting the AP course is the most recent example. Whether or not all students are able to connect theirs to the resistance of the past in any class discussing Black history or U.S. history is a matter of whose resistance will outlast the other’s.


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