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OPINION

Ron DeSantis’s fear of American history

The Florida governor knows that if students learn about this nation’s truth, they’ll fight against tyrants like him.

A third-grade student worked on a lesson at iPrep Academy on the first day of school, Aug. 23, 2021, in Miami.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s decision to ban an African American studies course from Florida schools carries the stench of white slaveowners who fought to keep those they enslaved from learning to read and write English.

“Slaveholders usually allowed their slaves to receive a measure of verbal religious instruction, but ‘book learning’ was another matter,” according to “Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation,” edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller. “The laws of most slave states forbade teaching slaves to read and write, and, even where the law was silent, slaveholders made their opposition clear.”

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DeSantis’s attempt to gut American history isn’t silent. Nor is his relentless opposition to teaching Florida’s children about their own country.

After recently claiming the College Board’s Advanced Placement for African American studies course violated Florida’s “Stop WOKE” law, DeSantis said, “We want education, not indoctrination.” Manny Diaz Jr., Florida’s education commissioner, called the course, which includes Black queer studies and Black feminist literary thought, “woke indoctrination masquerading as education.”

After Florida’s repulsive “Don’t Say Gay” law, what amounts to a “Don’t Say Black” edict was never far behind.

Those protesting loudest against indoctrination are usually the ones actively promoting it through their own divisive agendas. DeSantis refashioned “woke,” a decades-old Black term for staying vigilant and conscious of racial injustice and inequality, into a coded slur for anything or anyone he doesn’t like, including all things connected to the LGBTQ community.

A probable 2024 Republican presidential candidate, DeSantis is giving the nation a look at the hate he wants to spread beyond the Sunshine State.

“People across the country should be concerned that legislators and governors across the country are going to do exactly what Florida is doing,” Shevrin Jones, a Democrat and Florida state senator, told NPR.

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That’s already happening. In Missouri, a Republican state senator has proposed a bill that would bar any teaching that “individuals of any race, ethnicity, color, or national origin are inherently superior or inferior and that individuals, by virtue of their race, ethnicity, color, or national origin, bear collective guilt and are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by others.”

Instead, that state’s Republicans want teachers to participate in a “training program” to prepare them “to teach the principles of American civics and patriotism.”

Yeah, that doesn’t sound creepy at all.

Crucial to sustaining white supremacy is the erasure not only of Black trauma inflicted by systemic and institutional racism but Black accomplishment, triumph, and contributions. Although it shouldn’t be, “patriotism” has become shorthand for edifying whiteness as this nation’s one true compass.

In rejecting the AP course, a college-level class for high school students, the DeSantis administration claimed it “significantly lacks educational value.” A ban wasn’t enough. He had to denigrate the course’s value because it centers Blackness in this nation’s history.

It’s not just that DeSantis and other Republican legislators want to keep Black children from seeing their reflection in history. They also want white students force-fed a diet of supremacist propaganda, not unlike those pushed on earlier generations by textbook authors, the media, and popular culture. It’s no coincidence that so many adults know nothing about such seminal events as the Trail of Tears, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, or the orchestrated white violence that sabotaged the Reconstruction era.

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America has intentionally failed to reckon with its own history. DeSantis and other Republican legislators want to keep it that way. That’s a political cocktail of distraction and white fears that he probably believes can lead him to the White House. He’s looking for his own Trump 2016 moment.

Black history is American history. That’s not just a hashtag due for its yearly outing when Black History Month starts next Wednesday. It’s an undeniable fact. But like the cretins of centuries past, who could only stand tall because brutal laws forced others to their knees, DeSantis fears the transformative power of knowledge.

In “Remembering Slavery,” Georgia Baker, a formerly enslaved person, said that threats of violence for learning to read made Black people more scared of newspapers back then than they are “of snakes now.”

These days it’s DeSantis, white supremacy’s helicopter parent, making threats but he’s the one full of fear. He knows that the more young people, regardless of race or ethnicity, are educated about America’s raw, unvarnished past — and how it continues to dominate and dictate our rancorous present — the more they’ll rebel against thin-skinned tyrants like him.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.