No doubt most listeners have been exposed to the fact that the new guidelines for Florida public school students re instruction in black history included some real doozies --- such as how slavery prepared slaves for freedom with useful skills and that the white race riots in history also involved violence BY African Americans.
[The entire 216 pages are available here.]
The social studies standards for 6-8 graders include a statement that “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” In high school, students learn about “…..acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans ….” Examples included the “…. 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, 1919 Washington, D.C. Race Riot, 1920 Ocoee Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre.” Notice, they recognize many of these as “massacres” yet persist in equating defense when a bloodthirsty mob attacks as if it were the same thing as the violence of the mob.
I would like to take a deep dive into the skills issue because the fight over these guidelines presents what we educators like to call a teachable moment.
[But first I urge readers who want to learn more to check out a very detailed and useful statement by Professor Alan J. Singer of Hofstra University. See “Florida’s “Anti-Woke” Black History Standards” available here. Here are two examples of OMISSIONS from the standards: “The two places that refer to the Confederate states and the Civil War don’t mention which side Florida was on and which side African Americans fought for. Segregation is mentioned three times and the Klan is mentioned four times, but student do not learn what role they played in Florida.” I urge readers to check out his entire piece.]
To return to the discussion of the skills that African-American slaves “acquired” as a by product of their enslavement, it is important to note that the academic study of slavery and African American history that dominated textbooks and school instruction till the middle of the 20th century began with assertions that Africans who survived the “middle passage” from Africa to the New World brought no useful skills to the Americas. Ergo, whatever abilities they had once they were freed, was a positive side effect of slavery.
[The standard monograph on slavery before the 1960s was Ulrich B. Phillips’ American Negro Slavery. In a very positive review of Phillips back in the 1960s, the slavery scholar Eugene D. Genovese said that the two chapters on African societies were so stupidly racist they actually deserved to be burned. --- Genovese thought that the analysis of slavery in the US remained useful, despite Phillips’ racism. The ignorance about Africa only began to be rectified beginning in the 1950s.]
Historians have learned a lot since the days of Phillips, et al. Enslaved Africans brought a lot of skills to the Americas. For example, they brought the cultivation of rice and other crops --- about which Europeans knew nothing. Some enslaved people from Nigeria brought the knowledge of smelting and how to work with iron --- they didn’t need to be “taught” iron work by their masters.
A skill set particularly important once the international slave trade was suppressed in the United States were skills necessary to successfully bring up the next generation of enslaved people--- this included midwifery and medicinal knowledge as well as extensive networks of family support --- essential in a system where children and parents could be and were often separated because of the economic benefits to masters,
Enslaved people worked in sawmills, quarries, fisheries and mines. The skill sets of carpenters and masons were passed on by generations of enslaved men in a kind of informal apprentice system. In Mobile, Savannah, and New Orleans, enslaved Africans made up the majority of the dock workers and stevedores. In the 1920s hit SHOWBOAT such workers were celebrated in the racist opening lines of the song OLE MAN RIVER.
[For those who do not know those words they are:
“N ----s work hard on the Mississippi
“N ----s work hard all the live long day
Even in the 1930s and 40s, those words were too much for theater goers and actors --- and there have been many new ways that song begins.
Here’s one change:
Here we all work ‘long the Mississippi/Here we all work while the white folk play
Gettin’ no rest from the dawn ‘til snset/Gettin’ no rest ‘til the Judgment Day.
Paul Robeson added his own twist to it thusly:
There’s an old man called the Mississippi/That’s the old man I don’t like to be
What does he care if the world’s got troubles/What does he care if the land ain’t free.
Even songwriters in the 1920s realized the importance of skilled black labor at the major southern ports!]
But let’s get back to those guidelines. Defenders of the guidelines argue that if you “learned” to be a blacksmith while enslaved, you could use that skill once you were freed. But American slavery lasted over 200 years. Approximately 10 million people were enslaved during those years and only 4 million were alive in 1860. Of these 4 million, many were children or past working age. These enslaved youngsters and elderly could not POSSIBLY have been able to put their skills to use for themselves once freed. And of course, many of the adult age people worked all day in the fields picking cash crops.
[A lot of the modern arguments about how many slaves acquired skills stem from the 1974 monograph TIME ON THE CROSS written by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman. This work stimulated a raging debate within the economic history community. The best counter to the Fogel and Engerman argument was in the book Reckoning With Slavery,: Critical Essays in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery, by Paul David, Herbert Gutman, Richard Sutch, Peter Temin, Gavin Wright. (1975, Oxford University Press). My “take” is that Time on the Cross jumped to generalized conclusions from much too small samples and that their generalizations are very suspect.]
Taking off from the assertion that some slaves allegedly benefited from slavery, it is essential to note the great benefits to owners and investors—The Bank of England and Lloyd’s of London and various universities made billions from the slave trade, from capital accumulated from sugar, rum, tobacco, coffee, etc., and of course making more slaves (reproduction). One more point --- we know that slaves built the White House --- they also were rented out by their owners to construct Southern railroads.
And of course, there’s King Cotton. By 1840, the US grew more than 60 percent of the world’s cotton. New York City was a distributing and exporting center that drew income from the cotton trade. By 1860 two-thirds of the wealthiest Americans lived in the South--there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.
[I remain a big fan of the following book which I assigned to my students in American Economic History for decades: Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South.]
Any skills the slaves had went to benefit all those owners and others who got rich off of King Cotton while thousands of slaves labored from sunup to sundown to pick that crop. This, could of course, tee up a fascinating discussion of whether their descendants are owed “back wages” for all those unpaid contributions to the nation’s prosperity. Seen in this light, the demand for reparations (even though figuring out who would be eligible to receive the equivalence of back wages plus interest might be difficult) appears eminently reasonable.
[Check out the lyrics and performance of Oscar Brown, Jr.’s magnificent song “40 Acres and a Mule”
In conclusion, I hope that educators in Florida will actually take these various sentences and omissions within the guidelines seriously and use them as providing an opportunity to could open up a very useful discussion for junior high and high school students.
[Finally, I urge readers to check out two very interesting articles --- the first is a short opinion piece in the New York Times for Saturday, July 29 by columnist Charles M. Blow. This column is entitled “A Christian-Nationalist-Tinged Assault on Black History,” and its focus is on the goal behind the “standards” presented in Florida --- the goal of whitewashing black history (and in my view brainwashing white students). The second is a deep dive by Historian Robin D.G. Kelley in the New York Review of Books, “The Long War on Black Studies,” available here.]
Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies
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