Repositioning Slavery

The Far-Right Attack on Historical Truth

Enlisted African American soldier outside 8 Whitehall Street, a slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, fall 1864

According to Florida’s new revisionist task force on African American education, set into motion by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, important skills were acquired by enslaved Africans working on plantations during the Antebellum South. The task force’s new guidelines stipulate that when it comes to the teaching of slavery, middle students will be instructed about ‘how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.’ Slavery, in this view, is not depicted as a zero-sum endeavour that favours the plantocracy but actually has some sort of payoff for those who are enslaved – a win-win game. Something akin to the public work projects for the unemployed instituted by the Works Progress Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, perhaps? A New Deal type of arrangement courtesy of the plantation owners famous for their neighbourly and welcoming small-town Southern hospitality. Really? Country singer Jason Aldean should have something to say about that in his song, ‘Try That in a Small Town’:

Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk
Carjack an old lady at a red light
Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store
Ya think it’s cool, well, act a fool if ya like
Cuss out a cop, spit in his face
Stomp on the flag and light it up
Yeah, ya think you’re tough

Well, try that in a small town
See how far ya make it down the road
Around here, we take care of our own
You cross that line, it won’t take long
For you to find out, I recommend you don’t
Try that in a small town

Got a gun that my granddad gave me
They say one day they’re gonna round up
Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck

Try that in a small town
See how far ya make it down the road
Around here, we take care of our own
You cross that line, it won’t take long
For you to find out, I recommend you don’t
Try that in a small town
Full of good ol’ boys, raised up right
If you’re looking for a fight
Try that in a small town
Try that in a small town.

Clearly, the threat of white vigilantism is not a thing of the past, even when the threat is implicit, using highly charged symbolism. American justice has often been an unholy mixture of law and order and extra-legal violence. Our historical amnesia tricks us into imagining that we are different from the white vigilantes of the past by concealing our resemblance to them. A critical mode of remembrance can help us to resurrect the past that those who have been given official permission to narrate the present would like to see buried. Despite the myth of Southern hospitality, there is nothing especially hospitable about the way African Americans are treated in the South today, nor how enslaved Africans were treated in the antebellum years or free Africans were treated during Jim Crow. There was nothing, I repeat, nothing beneficial to being enslaved in the American South unless you believe that routine whippings, rapes, torture of all kinds and stripe, forced starvation, family separations, executions and daily dehumanisation is in some way beneficial. How would you respond to a contemporary prison guard at Guantanamo Bay who claimed that waterboarding provides prisoners with some skills in how to resist drowning? Or that prisoners in solitary confinement are given skills that help them conjure up and converse with imaginary visitors to avoid losing their minds? Regarding prison, I suppose being stripped naked, hosed with ice-cold water, and forced to sleep on a concrete floor can give you some edge if you survive your ordeal and one day want to take a voyage on an icebreaker to the Arctic Circle. This is patent nonsense.

DeSantis signed the ‘Stop WOKE Act’ in 2022, designed to restrict how issues of race are taught in public schools and workplaces. DeSantis, not known for his lambent wit or generosity of spirit, has undertaken actions so gleamingly hateful and so clearly racist, and appointed policymakers so bereft of insight germane to the topic of history, that they have shredded all pretences to capturing historical truth while at the same time burying the anguished questions surrounding historical accuracy that need to be allied with critical reflexivity if they are to stand unbuttressed by defamation and deceit.

The policymakers responsible for the new teaching guidelines have reinstituted the privilege of certain so-called disinterested modes of knowing from above and, with a studied ignorance, have themselves historicised the teaching of history in such a way that refuses to give witness to the telling of history from below. They have done this to avoid the type of political incitement that may lead to a climate of disaffection, causing white students to feel uneasy or uncomfortable in their classrooms. In the case of Florida’s new guidelines, these two trajectories – teaching from above and below – never seem to intersect at the crossroads where history and truth are inclined to meet. What we are left with is a type of axiomatic thinking, a unified structure of knowledge encultured by reductive regimes of truth and infused with selective bias that supports the white majority. Steven Lubet puts it this way:

Story precedes fact. That may seem counterintuitive, given that stories themselves are built on facts, but it is an important lesson that I teach my students in law school courses on advocacy and persuasion. The essential insight is that new facts are never received in a vacuum. Every listener, voter or juror interprets information in the context of their past experiences, assumptions, preferences, preconceptions and, yes, biases – almost always harmonising the new facts with their pre-existing mental image of the world.

Thus, a familiar or available story – often about the nature of social interactions or relationships – precedes the introduction of new facts by providing the necessary framework for valuing or understanding them. (This observation is not original with me, although I cannot remember where I first encountered it.)

While there is no straightforward assessment of historical events, what is clear is that DeSantis’s repositioning of history in the crucible of truth has a singularly domesticating power, preventing the historian from wielding her task in the name of justice. Justice has become a forbidden term in far-right circles such as those populated by DeSantis and his ilk. It has been ensepulchered in the mausoleum of lies.

Although unstated, there are paradigmatic positions that determine the validity of scientifically respectable historical accounts, which are generally taken to be legitimate and valid within the existing corpus of knowledge about slavery. While these accounts are sensitive to relations of power, both economic and political, and while there are constraints upon the discourses shaping our thoughts about the Antebellum South, the plantocracy and its slaves, no credible scholar would maintain that slavery had any benefits other than for the plantation economy of the South. To make a case for slavery providing benefits to those enslaved only serves as means of fixing the significance of slavery in the minds of students, creating a linguistic and cultural community premised on a structure of silence. Take the case of DeSantis’ campaign against critical race theory. Lubet writes:

Consider Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R-Fla.) campaign against critical race theory (CRT). Although CRT – a graduate school discipline exploring the role of structural racism in American society – has never been part of Florida’s public-school curriculums, DeSantis has repeatedly claimed that he is ‘taking a stand against the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory.’ In DeSantis’s story, Florida’s children were in danger of being taught a false version of American history, imbued with racial antagonism and that only his Stop WOKE Act could save them from learning ‘to hate our country or to hate each other.’

DeSantis’s story was compelling because it appealed to his voters’ background sense of fairness and patriotism. For those who heeded DeSantis’s warning – evidently, including every Republican in the state legislature – discrete facts were far less important than the global narrative of imminent racial provocation in the schools.

Thus, there was hardly a ripple from DeSantis’s supporters when he bragged that the Stop WOKE Act would empower students with ‘more historically accurate knowledge,’ including the claim that ‘It was the American Revolution that caused people to question slavery. No one had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our creator with unalienable rights.’

The absurdity of DeSantis’s assertion should have been apparent to anyone who had ever taken a college-level American history course. But it was calmly defended as, at most, a slight ‘overstatement’ by those who accepted his story about the dangers of CRT.

Of course, as Van Jones noted, the enslaved people questioned slavery and the failure of DeSantis to acknowledge this fact reveals himself ‘as someone unable to recognise enslaved people as human beings capable of questioning, much less resisting, their enslavement. DeSantis was not simply mistaken on the facts. Jones showed that he was blind to or dismissive of the true history of racial subjugation.’

DeSantis knows full well that his guidelines will forcefully frame the knowledge construction of students and the truths they are able to grasp from that knowledge. They will signify enslaved Africans in ways that create a certain grammar of grasping historical events that determines the truths and accuracy of such events. DeSantis may not be George Wallace standing at the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in 1963 to prevent black students from entering, but he is shamefully serving the same purpose – to deny the right for Americans to pursue the truth.

Under DeSantis’s new guidelines, processes of interpretation are shut down and, with them, intelligible responses to acts so heinous that we are forced to wrap our emotions in the language of officialdom, which is given purchase over the judgement of the teacher in her dialogue with her students. We are rarely asked to consider the perspective of the subject doing the interpretation, and if we are, that subject is thoroughly scrutinised for any attempts to brush against the conventional facts of history’s grand narrative of America and its singular greatness. The far-right has ideological sentinels like Christopher Rufo who are hired to write dishonest scathing creeds directed at Critical Race Theory and Critical Pedagogy. Christopher Rufo, a key propagandist for the MAGA (Make America Great Again) world of Trumpian fascism and who is currently a key architect of demonising Critical Race Theory, has set his sights on critical pedagogy, comparing its practitioners to Stalin’s artists of postrevolutionary Russia who operate as ‘engineers of the human soul’. This attack unsurprisingly demonstrates a motivated amnesia surrounding the efforts of critical pedagogy’s decades-long struggle to create a democratic public sphere amidst the fractious antipathy of the fascist anti-kingdom created by those who share Rufo’s ideological credentials and who posture heroically yet serve merely as ideological guardians of cynical far-right manipulation. Reactionary far-right critics of critical pedagogy are wont to ignore multiple historical trajectories of critical pedagogy (that includes critical multiculturalism, feminist pedagogy, anti-racist pedagogy, culturally responsive pedagogy, disability education, Catholic liberation theology and Catholic social justice teaching, to cite just a few examples) so that this confederacy of cynics are able to invite their listeners to participate in a highly selective knee-jerk association between critical pedagogy and the spectre of Marxist mobs poised to take over American patriots after first seizing their guns – an emotional association not unlike the one created by McCarthyism’s ‘red scare’ tactics used in the 1950s to target communists. Rufo is one of those ‘groomers’ hell-bent on turning students into ideological patrons of studied indifference. Wokeism may indeed have some problematic features (related to backlash culture and cancel culture, for instance), but Rufo weaponises his reactionary anti-wokeism in order to deny the very toxicity of racism, sexism, homophobia and attacks on transgender individuals, and their historical legacies. Rufo writes:

When Stalin toasted the artists of post-revolutionary Russia as ‘engineers of the human soul,’ he was speaking metaphorically, imagining the day that artists could create new men with scientific precision. That time, the critical pedagogists believe, has now come. The cherished goal of liberation through education, emblazoned in the sky by Guevara and implanted in the soul by Freire, might finally be within reach. After students are primed emotionally, categorised individually, and mobilised collectively, they can set about doing the work of revolution.

Reactionary anti-wokeism of Rufo’s stripe can only lead to a highly contagious revenge politics, not unlike what we saw in the infamous United the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and the even more infamous January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building. It is designed to groom gullible listeners to perversely grasp critical studies in ways that fit the rising tide of sociopathic behaviour underlying the foundations of American illiberalism.

When will pagan pageantry and a mandated oath of allegiance for teachers to the fascist leader enter the political Thunderdome of American revenge politics as exemplified by Rufo? It does not seem to be far off in the distance. DeSantis is inviting interpretations of slavery that overshadow its origins, as well as its present-day ability to influence systemic decisions around race and racism. In following DeSantis and his thought police, we license evaluative judgements about evidence at the risk of restricting the imaginations of those who seek after the truth. Hence, the facts of history and the ideological baggage shouldered by those facts are never coterminous with reality but quilted together in ways that entrench racial inequality. These facts demand an explanatory language able to rescue the historical facts from those meant to bleach them of their social, cultural, political and economic contexts and reduce them to sheer polemics, a closed circle, a discursive Ouroboros munching on its tail. The teaching of race requires that we co-process our emotions with our students, providing spaces for naming our feelings and reactions to historical events involving slavery in the United States and locating these historical events in actual slave testimonies. The Slave Narrative Collection, a group of autobiographical accounts of former slaves, was compiled in seventeen states during the years 1936–1938 and ‘consists of more than two thousand interviews with former slaves, most of them first-person accounts of slave life and the respondents’ own reactions to bondage.’

Historical facts are always populated by other people’s reasoning and meaning, and nested within their own structures of belief, which are context-specific and related to history’s ongoing accumulation of evidence. It is the role of the historian to help us to navigate the cumulative effect of supposedly self-evident facts and lead us through inference to the best explanation of events. At stake in these historical narratives is their salience for the times in which we live and the challenge of understanding the nature of the relationship between history and truth. We experience history, and our experiences happen in tandem with our theoretical assumptions, not before them, and we need to develop systems of intelligibility with sufficient explanatory power to understand not only the past but the present and the future. What we do not need is the imprimatur of a Florida governor showman whose actions resemble a big top ringmaster at a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus on Coney Island. Read in the larger context of Republican attacks on Black voting rights, DeSantis seems to be participating in pro-slavery gaslighting.

State Senator Geraldine Thomas said in a statement that the view of slavery promoted in the new guidelines ‘whitewashes the brutality that occurred when families were separated by being sold off during slavery and the resulting long-term trauma still experienced by current generations.’ Thomas also claimed that the new guidelines imply that Black history began with enslavement and that it’s mythologised as a ‘training ground where enslaved people were taught skills that they could use for their benefit.’ American History Task Force member Dr Donna Austin, who said she was ‘completely unaware’ of the standards until they were released to the public, remarked: ‘I’m gonna be honest with you: This is a race war … and we have too many African Americans on the wrong side of the battlefield.’

State Democratic Senator Shevrin Jones asserted that behind the new standards for teaching about slavery ‘is to teach history in a way to make white people not be looked at in a bad light…. There’s no silver bow that you can tie around the history of Black people. You can’t make lynching look good, you can’t make the raping of women look good…. There’s no benefit to that … there was nothing right about that. There was nothing just about that. It was torture.’

Marvin Dunn, a psychology professor emeritus at Florida International University, opined:

Most enslaved people had no special skills at all that benefitted them following their enslavement…. For almost all their skill was picking cotton. An enslaved man who was made to be a blacksmith might have been a king had he not been captured and taken from his country. Is he supposed to be grateful? Enslavement prevented people from becoming who and what they might have been and that was slavery’s greatest injury to humankind.

Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor and director of the Race and Crime Centre for Justice at the University of Florida, said the standards ‘offer ‘‘no discussion’’ of people who enslaved others. Much of the attention given to white people relates to how whites stood up against slavery, such as assisting with the Underground Railroad and support for Reconstruction policies for freed Blacks after the Civil War. It includes some information about groups opposed to ‘American equality,’ such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Bruce Levine, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Illinois and author of Half Slave & Half Free: The Roots of Civil War, rejected the value of spotlighting ‘skills’ learned while enslaved. He asked: ‘Very simply, can you imagine saying this about ‘‘skills’’ developed in Nazi forced-labor camps?’

Carol Anderson, an African American studies professor at Emory University, maintained that the standards represent an ‘old argument that slavery was a benevolent institution that benefited the enslaved…. It has the racist underpinning of treating Africans as if they had no skills prior to being kidnapped from their homelands and trafficked to America…. In fact, it was Africans’ skills in cultivating tobacco, sugar and rice that proved beneficial to the enslavers and built the inordinate wealth of the United States. The question itself is dehumanizing.’

When will pagan pageantry and a mandated oath of allegiance for teachers to the fascist leader enter the political Thunderdome of American revenge politics as exemplified by DeSantis and Rufo? It does not seem to be far off in the distance. What kind of political figure will emerge? Will it be Trump with his spray tanned face and blonde bouffant? A folksy robotic DeSantis looking like he belongs in the Rogue’s Gallery section of a wax museum? Or what many from America’s legion of young voters would like to see: The reincarnation of Max Rockatansky, the shoulder-padded road warrior hero with a thousand faces, the high octane vigilante crossing the wasteland in his Camel Wagon, shaping the iconography of the dystopian frontier with his marauding adventurism? I admit that it’s difficult to imagine our next president crossing the wasteland while three sheets to the wind, driving an old Ford F-150 chassis with a ram welded onto the front, a Ford XA sedan cab, F-150 standard V8 engine with a 4×4 drivetrain and visible tubing and pressure gauges in an engine refitted for methane processed from pig faeces provided by Master Blaster’s subterranean refinery, a racing seat with 4 point seatbelt and an arched metal frame draped with cloth that serves as a tent. But did anyone believe Donald Trump in 2016 had a chance? Will we elect another grievance hero, this time in the guise of the lone samurai warrior perhaps? Or a raging feral – someone straight out of Tic Tok? Or perhaps an archetypal mixture of both in the form of a trickster figure? Maybe Robert Kennedy Jr. whose love of talking vaccines and genes could provide the great mix.

If one thing is certain, it is the distinct appeal of boundary-pushing outlawry by far right politicians and influencers and the transgressive enforcement of American ideals. As far-right Republicans continue to dissipate their ontological substance and the very rationale for their vocation as representatives of the people, the Johannine metaphor of the withering branches becomes more befitting.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2023). Repositioning Slavery: The Far-Right Attack on Historical Truth. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.