When Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Department of Education make headlines for banning the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course from being taught in the state’s schools, saying the class “significantly lacks educational value,” we need to pay very close attention. Florida’s move is the latest front in an ongoing war against teaching children the truth about our shared history. When Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves, a pioneering Harvard-trained historian, and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, created the precursor to Black History Month in 1926 he did so because he was alarmed how few people, white or Black, knew anything at all about Black people’s achievements. Dr. Woodson believed it was critical to claim our rightful place in the history books and teach future generations about the great thinkers and role models who came before us. As he said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
But Dr. Woodson also understood that this was much more than just an academic discussion. He saw the connection between erasing Black history and assaulting Black bodies, and said the crusade to teach the truth about Black history was even “much more important than the anti-lynching movement, because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom. Why not exploit, enslave, or exterminate a class that everybody is taught to regard as inferior?”
In his seminal book The Mis-Education of the Negro, Dr. Woodson also explained that providing a standard “mis-education” to young Black children in the school system—“the thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies” was a calculated and insidious attack: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” Decades later, James Baldwin put a similar insight in sharp words that resonate right now: “It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborate, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do.”
Today, just as Dr. Woodson believed would happen, knowing our history makes it easier to spot moves like Florida’s hostile ban of A.P. African American Studies and immediately see them for exactly what they are and where they fit in in the long, long history of deliberate attempts to hide the truth and miseducate children. The adults desperate to control children’s thinking today will have to work overtime as they try to block every new avenue for young people to access and discern the truth for themselves. For example, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) is responding to book bans and purges in other libraries and schools by making its “National Teen BPL eCard” available for a limited time to young people ages 13-21 across the country, giving them free access to BPL’s full eBook collection and learning databases. BPL was inspired in part by the American Library Association’s and Association of American Publishers’ “Freedom to Read” Statement, originally drafted 70 years ago, which begins: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label ‘controversial’ views, to distribute lists of ‘objectionable’ books or authors, and to purge libraries . . .We, as individuals devoted to reading and as librarians and publishers responsible for disseminating ideas, wish to assert the public interest in the preservation of the freedom to read.”
And as Dr. Woodson also taught us, the preservation of the freedom to read and the freedom to learn our nation’s true and full history is not just an academic discussion today either. Every attempt to limit teaching the truth about Black history—or about Asian American, Native American, Latino, LGBTQ, or women’s history—has a very dangerous subtext. This is a book we’ve read before. We must all stay vigilant against every new effort to miseducate our children and our communities.