By Bayley Marquez, author of Plantation Pedagogy: The Violence of Schooling across Black and Indigenous Space

In the summer of 2023, as I was finishing reviewing the copy edits of my manuscript for Plantation Pedagogy, news sources began reporting on the controversy over Florida’s state standards for African American history. The coverage focused on the standard that read “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The Africa American History standards on the Florida Department of Education’s website also require the implementation of a social studies curriculum titled “stories of inspiration” that intends to “inspire future generations through motivating stories of American history that demonstrate important life skills and the principles of individual freedom that enabled persons to prosper even in the most difficult circumstances.”

What’s at stake in these assertations by the Florida Department of Education is how slavery is presented: the curriculum requires teachers to describe slavery as having some good outcomes. Critics noted how this form of slavery apologism functioned as propaganda. Jamelle Bouie wrote in the New York Times that the standards were “an exercise in equivocation and blame shifting” and an article in NEA Today compared these standards to the education programs of Nazi Germany.

While conservative and liberal leaning media outlets either maligned the standards or tried to prove they were not in fact racist at all, I was not shocked by this turn of events. In fact, the book I had just written would have predicted this very occurrence. Plantation Pedagogy argues that education for and about Black folks since the post-Civil war time period has promoted this message about slavery — that it had some value and positive effects for the enslaved despite its brutality. What is especially pernicious about this narrative is that it can portray slavery as “educative.” Slavery then becomes an institution that gets justified for its “educational value.”

In Plantation Pedagogy, I write about how schools in the post-emancipation South created curriculum based on this idea that slavery taught Black people something of value, and that these schools were not good for Black people. These damaging forms of schooling were not only applied to Black schooling, but also expanded to Indigenous boarding schools, and used in Hawaii, the Philippines, Liberia and South Africa, to name just a few places.  This is not a benign set of ideas, but a violent process of education that was part of the history of Indigenous dispossession, antiblackness, and American imperialism.

This idea of slavery as a form of education was woven into formal systems of curriculum and teaching starting with post-Civil War schooling in the South. Not only are these Florida African American history standards expected, they are in fact inevitable within our current schooling system. They are part of a long history of slavery apologism that we—as historians and academics who care about what young people learn—cannot brush off as simply an artifact of a previous historical time.

And this is not just a problem in Florida. I end my book by examining a 2021 resolution from the Georgia Board of Education attacking the concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT). This resolution engaged in a politics of justification for schooling that is violent towards Black and Indigenous peoples in the name of “preparing them for life,” which is another trajectory of slavery apologism. Beyond the US South, attacks against CRT in schools happen in school districts from California to New York, and states as diverse as North Dakota and New Hampshire. These schooling politics work to halt action on reparations and shut down discussions of transformational justice. They rely on an economy of moral indebtedness (a term I borrow from Manu Karuka’s wonderful book Empire’s Tracks) where it is implied that if Black folks can be framed as better off because of slavery, then society doesn’t owe Black folks anything. The ultimate message of this curriculum is that, in fact, “you owe us.”

Thank you to Theresa Burruel Stone for her feedback on this post and discussions with me about these ideas.