LANFORD: The New “Propaganda Of History”


The situation in Florida is dire. There is an ongoing assault on education and the banning of AP African American Studies is just one front in this war. What was a bold new step for American education is now a watered down version of real history. Learning from the great Black historian W.E.B. Du Bois, we can see clearly the danger of allowing these situations to develop and continue. If educational giants like College Board continue to bow down, the very problem that Du Bois highlighted in his work “Black Reconstruction in America” will become realized at the level of state education. Florida wants to avoid dealing with history in full, but only by reconciling with thinkers in their totalities can we begin to understand history.

Last month, Florida announced that it would be banning AP African American Studies from being taught in high schools. The curriculum was initially rejected without an in-depth explanation as to why. After pressure, however, the Florida Department of Education elaborated, saying that the AP African American Studies curriculum was full of “woke indoctrination.” Furthermore, the department stated that intersectionality — a theory developed by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw — merely “ranks people based on their race, wealth, gender, and sexual orientation.” Anyone who has read Crenshaw’s work would know that the theory is not simply a scale of how oppressed a person is based on their identities. Instead, it moves beyond a “single axis” of oppression, as the unique discrimination that Black women face is “not the sum of race and sex discrimination.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has attempted to veil his assault on education by claiming he is trying to eliminate “ideological conformity.” He intends to do so by “mandating courses” on Western civilization, as if there is not a high degree of ideological conformity intended by forcing children to learn a manufactured narrative that places undue emphasis on Western civilization.

Another part of DeSantis’s claim against AP African American Studies was that it was not “historically accurate.” This too is a rather dubious claim, especially when we look at the content that was removed. It is not that the old curriculum was historically inaccurate, but that it contained history that DeSantis would prefer to go unnoticed. In comparing the new and old curriculums, the College Board clearly gave in and tried to appease conservative sensibilities. They removed any reference to Black Lives Matter and the present day struggle for Black rights in America. Furthermore, units on Black queer studies and Black feminism were either removed entirely or greatly downsized. Notable authors and theorists such as James Baldwin, bell hooks and Angela Davis were stricken from the curriculum. A section on post-slavery labor and economics disappeared from the new curriculum, an unsurprising development as it is not enough to deny the existence of Black queer people and women but also to ignore the Black labor movement as a whole. The College Board may claim that the final section of class will be for exploration of such topics, but this does not give these ideas the full exploration they deserve.

Last month, we celebrated the birthday of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, whose ideas are as relevant today as they ever were. Du Bois is featured 17 times in the updated AP African American Studies curriculum. His work “The Souls of Black Folk'' and theory of double consciousness play an important role in Unit 3 of the curriculum. Double consciousness is the idea that Black Americans are “born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world.” Looking at Du Bois provides an intriguing look at the new AP African American studies curriculum, especially in comparison to the AP U.S. History curriculum and Florida’s public high school curriculum. Du Bois appears more than Booker T. Washington in the AP African American Studies curriculum, yet in the AP U.S. History and Florida public school curriculum he only shows up in the context of his debate with Washington on education. The updated AP African American Studies curriculum keeps “The Souls of Black Folk” and the concept of double consciousness, a bold and entirely correct move. Despite this, Florida’s controversial Stop WOKE Act will probably render the move largely ineffective as the concept might only be permitted as a way of understanding Jim Crow, and not as a way of analyzing our present moment in history.

Du Bois has more to offer than just “Souls.” In particular, his work “Black Reconstruction” and its final chapter “The Propaganda of History” provide a prescient analysis of the situation in Florida. Here, Du Bois counters the claims made by the prevailing academic opinion of the Dunning School on Reconstruction. Named after Professor William A. Dunning, this school of thought sought to create a version of history which was entirely antithetical to reality. The Dunning School’s tale of Reconstruction argued that Black people were responsible for its failure, with all of their reasoning grounded in abhorrent racial stereotypes. In countering these claims, Du Bois argued that we need a “scientific” conception of history. Similar to how the Dunning School sought to change the narrative of history in favor of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is seeking to change education by “mandating courses in Western civilization.” If we are to follow DeSantis’s version of history, then in Du Bois’s eyes we are simply “using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.” While ideology is absolutely propagated through the teaching of history and what we choose to include in curricula, the study of history itself should strive for impartiality in its endeavor to find facts.

If everyone with a conscience does not fight back against this assault on education — Black history in particular — then we are handing over history to propagandists who would seek to destroy its scientific core. This modern day revisionism in the name of a whitewashed arc of history is disturbing and an offense to pedagogy. “Black Reconstruction” teaches us that we cannot simply stand on the sidelines. If we let history fall to the hands of those who even today are pushing a new narrative with harmful racial undertones, this time morphed to portray the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the end of racism, then we are failing both students and historians alike.

On Feb. 23, we celebrated Du Bois as one of the most influential figures on Black thought. Like many thinkers, he was a complicated individual and his ideas changed over the years. For example, the Du Bois of “the Conservation of Races” is a different man from that of “Black Reconstruction.” Yet we must confront his ideas as a whole — we should not pick and choose which side of him we get to praise and which to ignore. If we are to simply manufacture the best narrative of an individuals life, we only end up ignoring their failures in order to highlight their successes. Furthermore, we cannot ignore double consciousness and the influence it had for future generations of Black thinkers — it was vital for Black feminists and queer theorists as they sought to understand what it meant to be Black and perceive oneself through the eyes of white America.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education would have us ignore controversial thinkers instead of analyzing them. As we reflect on the impact Du Bois has had, we must stand strong against the whitewashing of history, bearing truth and integrity with all our might.