Florida Watch: What Happened to Black History Month?
Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis steered a torrent of new bills through the state legislature that heightened state control over classroom teaching about gender identity, sexism and racism.
Many teachers entered the school year understandably apprehensive, as the education system and autonomy they once knew had been destabilized. This past February, another unsettling roadblock appeared: the complications involved in teaching Black history.
Black History Backburnered
“At my school, no one was told specifically not to teach certain things. It’s kind of like the elephant in the room. Nobody wants to talk about the big elephant in the room,” Tanika Bennett says. Bennett is a 20-year veteran teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and an executive board member for the United Teachers of Dade.
As her school’s site director for the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project (a program centered to assist young males in minority communities), Bennett leads the celebration of Black History Month.
Over the last five years, she has worked alongside her colleagues to teach students the sweeping history and impact of the African diaspora. But now, she says, the culture of the school is reverting back to a disconcerting space.
“A great majority of teachers are not teaching Black history. A teacher may not want to elaborate because of the current climate,” she says. “I’m not uncomfortable, but others are uncomfortable.”
Within her district, all teachers receive pacing guides for their instruction but so far none of them have been updated to reflect the new laws. The unsettling consequence? Teachers have tucked away their Black History Month lessons all together.
“The district has no answer when parents complain about what teachers are doing in the classroom recently,” Bennett says of the laissez-faire stance that trickles down to the classrooms. “They simply tell us to stop our instruction or give the student whose parent has an issue an alternate assignment.”
Moreover, the recent disapproval of the pilot AP African American History course by DeSantis — yet another tirade on critical race theory (CRT) — heightened tensions even more.
“It’s blasphemous for him to take away the right for students to choose for themselves their educational journey,” she says as the course is an elective requested by students themselves. “CRT is mostly taught at the collegiate level because there’s really no place for it in public schools. I believe the governor is afraid of students learning what atrocities have occurred at the hands of white Anglo-Saxons to various minority groups and marginalized people.”
Black Studies Tops Target List
Jacob Thomas, a Florida first-grade teacher who requested his district remain anonymous, believes the uneasiness teachers feel toward Black History Month was an intentional goal. In the last week of January, teachers in his district were required to watch a video explaining the ramifications of HB 7. The bill prohibits teachers from evoking a feeling of “guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress” in an individual for actions committed in the past “by other members of the same race, color, sex or national origin.”
“That is very vague because you can be a Black person and hear something about slavery and feel anguished,” Thomas says. While DeSantis has seemingly addressed the accusations he is targeting Black history, teachers remain afraid to touch the topic.
In Thomas’ school of 435 students and a 95% Black population, Black History Month celebrations are scarce; administration remains on edge and bereft of guidance for the newly effective laws. The school’s Black history play, “A Day in the Life Without Black Inventions,” was immediately halted in late January, hallway and classroom decorations were solely Valentine’s Day-inspired and Thomas is the only teacher he was certain taught Black history in his school.
“I created homework and the banner on the top simply said ‘Black History.’ Another teacher said, ‘Oh, he’s trying to get us fired,’” Thomas recalls. Though the teacher was joking, the underlying fear was real, he says. “I think the passing of those bills did exactly what they were supposed to do, because we were all scared to teach Black history.”
Books Removals Skew Students’ View of History and Themselves
Teachers across Florida were instructed to remove or cover all non-curriculum books from their classrooms in January. While books are still waiting to be approved by certified media specialists, many teachers still reckon with the chilling absence of diverse representation on their bookshelves.
According to Pen America, the book bans of the 2021-2022 school year largely targeted books with characters of color, covered race and racism in American history and featured LGBTQ+ identities.
The result? Students are getting a skewed view of history, says Miami-Dade’s Bennett.
“Are we going to remove all the books that refer to Blacks as N-words?” Bennett asks. “Because if those books get to stay on the shelf and books that tell the truth about our history and culture are dismissed, it’s misleading.”