Florida’s treatment of Black history calls for an African-centered response
The exclusion of an African American history course as “woke culture” by the Florida administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis should set off alarm bells within the Black community. That’s because the politics of the educational system has long been a contentious topic for a people still needing to recover from the effects of slavery and Jim Crow.
Understand that the infrastructure of Black education was devised on the fly during the Civil War era by the same powers that oppressed them. By the 1930s, critics such as the historian Carter G. Woodson questioned the effects of such curriculums in “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” The designation of February as a safe space to learn about precious moments in Black history is one of his contributions.
As America begins a month of revisiting its racial past, events in Florida should be a reminder of the fragile nature of recent inclusive educational reforms. And it indicates a continuing need for alternative ways to introduce forgotten heritage — and perhaps in no area more than Black political history.
Rather than depicting achievements in state creation and governance, the education system tends to render Black political history as overly dependent on other groups and restricted to America. In response to such teachings, scholars such as the late historian Jacob Carruthers, in the 1999 work “Intellectual Warfare,” advocated for easily accessible materials of learning to counterbalance miseducation.
For educators in Florida, as well as other states under contest, it seems an appropriate moment to revisit this idea. One alternative is the creation of an online Black political history calendar with social media outreach, screensavers apps — and a print version capable of being shared through Bluetooth technology.
While the act of defining one’s place in historical time is largely a symbolic gesture, and Black political culture tends to be overly reliant on such things, the ritual nonetheless can help a maligned group define and preserve its legacy.
As such, the Black political history calendar would be a useful tool for restoring the legacy of state management and instilling the value of political participation. It could be a low-cost way to respond to orchestrated assaults on inclusive learning as the struggle to devise racially affirming curriculums continues.
As envisioned, the calendar would maintain the 12-month, 365-day format but shift the point of historical reference. Rather than starting from the time of Jesus Christ under the “Anno Domini” calendar, it instead would begin with the rise of Africa’s first great state, Egypt. As such, it could be a vehicle to account for 5,123 years of state management (the commonly accepted year for the federation of pre-dynastic Egypt is about 3100 B.C.).
To clarify, if the years from 3100 are combined with the modern calendar of 2023, then the Black political calendar would cover 5,123 years of state engagement. Over time, the calendar could introduce a continuous line of governance from the ancient Nile River civilization to the presidency of Barack Obama.
In addition to historical episodes, the calendar would take note of contemporary dates for voter registration and elections, and could be updated for historical content and political events in other years.
Here are four imperative episodes in the Black political experience that I would suggest for the debut calendar year of 5123. First, the pages should claim the legacy of the ancient Nile River kingdoms and commemorate the vision of historian Cheikh Anta Diop.
In the 1970s, the Senegalese scholar pioneered a movement for the restoration of Egypt’s Black founders in world history. His 1974 study, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, argued on behalf of the “oneness of Egyptian and Black culture” and ignited a program of historical correction. One enduring outcome was the eight-volume “General History of Africa,” published in the 1990s by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and distributed by the University of California Press.
In addition to Egypt, the calendar should herald the Nile River kingdoms of Kush and Ethiopia. The states were as old as Egypt, influenced its culture and economy, and prospered after lower Egypt was overrun by foreign forces beginning about 600 B.C. New understandings of the Nile River kingdoms have inspired corrective public humanity programs, such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts 2020 exhibit “Ancient Nubia Now,” and the 2021 showing, “The Origin of African Civilization,” by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Second, the calendar should document the early kingdoms of the western Sudan, the ancestral region of many Black Americans. In recent years, the excavation of mounds has uncovered evidence of city-states and trade patterns that date back 3,000 years to the Iron Age. An example is the mysterious Senegambian megaliths — west Africa’s version of Britain’s Stonehenge on the Gambia River.
The discovery of iron and copper at the ancient site of Djenné-Djeno, located in current day Mali, reveals prehistoric trade patterns of great distances. The routes extended to the forest belt settlements, such as the highly advanced Nok people (rhymes with “woke”) in current day Nigeria, with a legacy of crafting ornate iron-work. Across the western Sudan, communities traded locally produced goods such as iron tools, leather, salt, grain, dried fish, clothing, pottery, kola nuts, sculptures in bronze, stone and ceramics, and gold.
Third, the calendar should expose people to the medieval pre-industrial states of Ghana and Kanem in west and central Africa, respectively. The story of the Kingdom of Ghana — located in current day Mauritania — should depict its regional prominence between 300 A.D. and 1100 A.D. This includes influences from — and defenses against — outside forces. Ghana was a way station for Berber camel caravans on the trans-Saharan routes after the rise of Islam about 700 A.D.
Fourth, the calendar should record the participation of Black Americans in Africa state development — most notably, the 16,000 people who formed a colony in Liberia, west Africa, in the 19th century with the support of the controversial American Colonization Society in 1822. The story of self-governance is embodied in the adventures of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a free-born resident from Norfolk, Va. He emigrated to Liberia in 1829 and worked as a merchant in the town of Monrovia. By 1848, when most Blacks in America were held in bondage, Roberts was elected the first president of the Republic of Liberia.
Finally, as it regards contemporary political events, the calendar should mark the dates of upcoming elections in Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky — in particular, Louisiana and Mississippi, where Black residents comprise over 30 percent of the populations, but are often excluded from authentic representation.
No doubt others would prefer the chronicling of modern events such as the establishment of the African Union — in this regard, the calendar would be a flexible tool to document important events, past and present, over the years.
The Black political history calendar could be one informal response to what appears to be a closing door to inclusive education in Florida. As the struggle over school curriculums — and libraries — rages across the country, educators and cultural producers should weigh the merits of alternative methods for informal online learning.
Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston and author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”
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