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Black historians defy Florida restrictions on Black studies


Read passages from banned books

By Kristina Dixon | Across Black America

Black historians read passages from banned books last earlier this month in a local park in Florida.

In Washington, D.C., Black members of Congress that same week hosted panels on preserving Black history at a conference.

And in Pennsylvania, a 91-year-old pastor reached out to an expert in South Carolina to help his church set up Black history lessons.

They are part of a growing movement across the country of educators, lawmakers, civil rights activists and church leaders who say there is a renewed urgency to teach Black history in the wake of a crackdown on Black scholars and inclusive lesson plans. The effort has seen historians share ways others can teach Black history, churches hold history classes during Bible study, film festivals showcase Black history work, and Black leaders in Congress have asked museums and local institutions to help in the campaign to preserve that history. 

“There’s a movement across the country to suppress the teaching of Black history,” said Marvin Dulaney, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. “We have to meet that challenge head-on.”

The push to teach more Black history comes as dozens of states, including Florida, Texas and Oklahoma, have adopted or proposed measures that critics say omit important parts of Black history or limit language related to race, sexuality and gender issues in public schools. Some have also banned books, many by Black authors that focus on race.

“There’s urgency because these histories are under assault,” said Bobby Donaldson, an associate history professor at the University of South Carolina. “The battles in Florida and elsewhere remind us that it’s urgent that we do this work now.”

Dulaney along with other historians and activists stood in a Jacksonville, Fla. park named after James Weldon Johnson, the late civil rights activist and composer, and read passages from banned books. There were readings from “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver.

“We’re sort of being proactive this year because of what we’re confronting here as well as in other places in the country,” Dulaney said.  He added that the efforts are part of the organization’s mission to accurately teach Black history. It was founded in 1915 by Carter G. Woodson, known as the father of Black History Month.

“Teaching and studying and promoting Black history is not about trying to make white people and white children feel bad,” Dulaney said. “It’s just a part of American history. It’s also telling the truth that has been hidden for so long.”

At least 21 states have introduced legislation this year to limit the teaching of “divisive” concepts or critical race theory in public schools and/or higher education institutions, according to Emily Ronco, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). At least 14 states passed legislation. Last year, at least 24 states considered such legislation, according to NCSL.

The debate on how Black history is taught has largely centered on Florida because state officials also banned this year the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course. State officials there have said African American history is already taught in schools. They’ve said some course material violates state law and take issue with the inclusion of lessons on the Black Lives Matter social justice movement, Black feminism and reparations.

In July, Faith in Florida, a coalition of churches advocating for social justice issues, launched a Black history program offering an online toolkit that includes videos, books and other resources.

Black churches have the power and responsibility to fill in gaps if educators don’t or won’t, said the Rev. Rhonda Thomas, executive director of Faith in Florida. She dismissed arguments that teaching comprehensive Black history could offend white children.

“That was ridiculous considering that Black children and Black adults have been offended for years,” Thomas said. “And nothing was ever watered down nor erased.”