FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2023
Professor Gates may be wrong: Yesterday afternoon, we returned to a news report we'd looked at once before.
It appeared last week in the Washington Post. Headline included, the news report started like this:
As red states target Black history lessons, blue states embrace them
Even as lessons on Black history draw complaints from Republican governors, who argue the instruction is ideological, several blue states are moving in the opposite direction—mandating classes in African American, Latino and Puerto Rican studies—and setting up a uniquely American division over how we teach our past.
Since 2019, partly in response to the murder of George Floyd, at least four reliably Democratic states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine and Rhode Island—have passed laws requiring instruction on Black history...Connecticut’s law says African American, Puerto Rican and Latino studies must be included in the social studies component of all public school curriculums. Delaware’s mandates that school districts offer instruction on Black history. Maine’s says that African American studies and the history of genocide must be included in state testing standards. And Rhode Island’s orders schools to include a unit on African History and Heritage.
Three cheers for the four blue states which "have [now] passed laws requiring instruction on Black history!"
According to this news report, "lessons on Black history" have been "draw[ing] complaints from Republican governors." Those blue states had been "moving in the opposite direction," at least partly in response to the murder of George Floyd.
It seemed to us that a bit of cheerleading might lurk in that formulation. Like much of what we read and hear in the current journalistic environment, this slightly slanted formulation seemed to be directing side-eye at our blue tribe's political enemies while showering praise on our friends.
Large amounts of our current discourse are fashioned from this ancient construct. We may not stop to wonder why the four heroic states in question had to wait until 2020—had to wait for Goerge Floyd's brutal murder!—to come up with the amazing idea of teaching black history statewide, in all their public schools.
Is it possible that these late arrivals were engaged in a bit of showboating—were engaging in acts of moral performance? At times like these, such questions will rarely be asked about our favorite friends.
Long ago and far away, a famous president—Abraham Lincoln—spoke out against the culture of enemies and friends.
"We must not be enemies," Lincoln said. "We are not enemies, but friends."
He said these things in his first inaugural address. Four years later, President Lincoln was shot and killed by one of his murderous friends.
Why did Delaware belatedly mandate that its school districts have to offer instruction on Black history? We have no idea.
We also can't tell you, with any certainty, what Ron DeSantis actually thinks about the teaching of such subjects.
We're inclined to view DeSantis as a demagogue and a bully. Based on his recent essay for the New York Times, it sounds like Professor McWhorter views DeSantis in a roughly similar way.
Professor McWhorter was discussing the decision by the College Board to eliminate certain parts of its proposed Advanced Placement course in African American Studies. That included parts of the course DeSantis had opposed.
Had the Board amended its course because of DeSantis? It's hard to know the answer to that. But concerning the role that Desantis may have played, McWhorter offered this:
MCWHORTER (2/16/23): I’d like to make clear that I disapprove of the vast majority of DeSantis’s culture warrior agenda, a ham-handed set of plans designed to stir up a G.O.P. base in thrall to unreflective figures such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. If DeSantis runs for president, he will not get my vote.
However, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and in terms of how we tell the story of Black America, the board did the right thing, whether because of DeSantis’s threat or for more high-minded reasons...
Dear God! The horrible headline even said this:
DeSantis May Have Been Right
Professor McWhorter isn't a fan of Governor DeSantis. Even so, he allowed for a possibility which has gone way out of date:
He allowed for the possibility that DeSantis, a ham-handed culture warrior, may have been right this time, on this particular matter.
For this one brief shining moment, McWhorter left cartooning behind. He allowed for an antique possibility: on occasion, a person he doesn't widely admire may get something right.
Was DeSantis right in his complaints about the Advanced Placement course? In our view, DeSantis is so inarticulate in the way he has voiced his complaints that the question may not be worth asking.
That said, we don't think it's obvious that DeSantis wasn't basically right in some ways. We're happy to share McWhorter's belief in the occasional wisdom of clocks.
McWhorter turned away from a modern practice when he penned this piece. According to that modern practice, the Other has to be wrong every time, preferably after our tribunes have embellished or "improved" whatever he actually said.
This doesn't make DeSantis a friend. It simply means that there's a chance that he won't always be wrong.
Our modern discourse tends to run on a different fuel, and even the best among us may be swept away by its power. Just consider what Professor Gates said!
A few years ago, we skillfully credited Professor Gates with "the greatest question ever asked." ("What difference does it make?" he said to Ava DuVernay.)
For our money, it was the greatest ever! On the other hand, he drives us crazy on Finding Your Roots when he gives his guests the impression that (for example) they have only one "fourth great grandfather," even though the professor knows that his guest very likely has a full complement of 32.
(Just this week, the professor told Angela Davis that William Brewster, of Mayflower fame, is "your tenth great grandfather," full stop. In fact, a person may have as many as 2,048 tenth great grandfathers! In fairness, withholding such facts makes for "good [or much better] TV.")
We wish the professor wouldn't do that! On the other hand, his show develops a wealth of historical insight, with just this one particular thumb on this one particular scale.
Professor Gates is, quite plainly, a plainly good, decent person. He's also very smart and extremely learned.
That said, even people of the highest caliber can get swept up in the culture of enemies / friends. Just consider the column the professor wrote about DeSantis for Sunday's New York Times.
Is it possible that DeSantis got something right about the Advanced Placement course? There's no reason why Professor Gates has to think that—and if he actually thinks some such thing, no rule says that he has to say so.
What he surely shouldn't do is what he actually did.
Good lord! Professor Gates is a good, decent person, but in his column about DeSantis, he went on and on and on and on, discussing a 19th century, slavery-loving figure. It was all part of giving DeSantis "the benefit of the doubt!"
GATES (2/19/23): Even if we give the governor the benefit of the doubt about the motivations behind his recent statements about the content of the original version of the College Board’s A.P. curriculum in African American studies, his intervention falls squarely in line with a long tradition of bitter, politically suspect battles over the interpretation of three seminal periods in the history of American racial relations: the Civil War; the 12 years following the war, known as Reconstruction; and Reconstruction’s brutal rollback, characterized by its adherents as the former Confederacy’s “Redemption,” which saw the imposition of Jim Crow segregation, the reimposition of white supremacy and their justification through a masterfully executed propaganda effort.
Undertaken by apologists for the former Confederacy with an energy and alacrity that was astonishing in its vehemence and reach, in an era defined by print culture, politicians and amateur historians joined forces to police the historical profession. The so-called Lost Cause movement was, in effect, a take-no-prisoners social media war. And no single group or person was more pivotal to “the dissemination of the truths of Confederate history, earnestly and fully and officially,” than the historian general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Mildred Lewis Rutherford, of Athens, Ga. Rutherford was a descendant of a long line of slave owners; her maternal grandfather owned slaves as early as 1820, and her maternal uncle, Howell Cobb, secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan, owned some 200 enslaved women and men in 1840. Rutherford served as the principal of the Lucy Cobb Institute (a school for girls in Athens) and vice president of the Stone Mountain Memorial project, the former Confederacy’s version of Mount Rushmore.
In a column about DeSantis, Professor Gates went on and on, then on and on, about Mildred Lewis Rutherford (1851-1928), "a prominent white supremacist speaker" and an old world "historian general." For the record, this was all part of giving DeSantis the benefit of the doubt!
For the record, when we say that Gates went on and on, we mean he really went on and on. Given the passions of the age, this was a good person's idea of giving DeSantis "the benefit of the doubt:"
GATES (continuing directly): As the historian David Blight notes, “Rutherford gave new meaning to the term ‘die-hard.’” Indeed, she “considered the Confederacy ‘acquitted as blameless’ at the bar of history, and sought its vindication with a political fervor that would rival the ministry of propaganda in any twentieth-century dictatorship.” And she felt that the crimes of Reconstruction “made the Ku Klux Klan a necessity.” As I pointed out in a PBS documentary on the rise and fall of Reconstruction, Rutherford intuitively understood the direct connection between history lessons taught in the classroom and the Lost Cause racial order being imposed outside it, and she sought to cement that relationship with zeal and efficacy. She understood that what is inscribed on the blackboard translates directly to social practices unfolding on the street.
“Realizing that the textbooks in history and literature which the children of the South are now studying, and even the ones from which many of their parents studied before them,” she wrote in “A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges and Libraries,” “are in many respects unjust to the South and her institutions, and that a far greater injustice and danger is threatening the South today from the late histories which are being published, guilty not only of misrepresentations but of gross omissions, refusing to give the South credit for what she has accomplished … I have prepared, as it were, a testing or measuring rod.” And Rutherford used that measuring rod to wage a systematic campaign to redefine the Civil War not as our nation’s war to end the evils of slavery but as “the War Between the States,” since as she wrote elsewhere, “the negroes of the South were never called slaves.” And they were “well fed, well clothed and well housed.”
Of the more than 25 books and pamphlets that Rutherford published, none were more important than “A Measuring Rod.” Published in 1920, her user-friendly pamphlet was meant to be the index “by which every textbook on history and literature in Southern schools should be tested by those desiring the truth.” The pamphlet was designed to make it easy for “all authorities charged with the selection of textbooks for colleges, schools and all scholastic institutions to measure all books offered for adoption by this ‘Measuring Rod,’ and adopt none which do not accord full justice to the South.” What’s more, her campaign was retroactive. As the historian Donald Yacovone tells us in his recent book, “Teaching White Supremacy,” Rutherford insisted that librarians “should scrawl ‘unjust to the South’ on the title pages” of any “unacceptable” books “already in their collections.”
On a page headed ominously by the word “Warning,” Rutherford provides a handy list of what a teacher or a librarian should “reject” or “not reject.”
“Reject a book that speaks of the Constitution other than a compact between sovereign states.”
“Reject a textbook that does not give the principles for which the South fought in 1861, and does not clearly outline the interferences with the rights guaranteed to the South by the Constitution, and which caused secession.”
“Reject a book that calls the Confederate soldier a traitor or rebel, and the war a rebellion.”
“Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves.”
“Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholder of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves.”
And my absolute favorite, “Reject a textbook that glorified Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis, unless,” she adds graciously, “a truthful cause can be found for such glorification and vilification before 1865.”
And what of slavery? “This was an education that taught the negro self-control, obedience and perseverance—yes, taught him to realize his weaknesses and how to grow stronger for the battle of life,” Rutherford writes in 1923 in “The South Must Have Her Rightful Place.” “The institution of slavery as it was in the South, far from degrading the negro, was fast elevating him above his nature and race.” For Rutherford, who lectured wearing antebellum hoop gowns, the war over the interpretation of the meaning of the recent past was all about establishing the racial order of the present: “The truth must be told, and you must read it, and be ready to answer it.” Unless this is done, “in a few years there will be no South about which to write history.”
In other words, Rutherford’s common core was the Lost Cause. And it will come as no surprise that this vigorous propaganda effort was accompanied by the construction of many of the Confederate monuments that have dotted the Southern landscape since.
While it’s safe to assume that most contemporary historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction are of similar minds about Rutherford and the Lost Cause, it’s also true that one of the most fascinating aspects of African American studies is the rich history of debate over issues like this, and especially over what it has meant—and continues to mean—to be “Black” in a nation with such a long and troubled history of human slavery at the core of its economic system for two and a half centuries.
Gates spent little time discussing anything DeSantis has actually said about the AP course. Instead, he went on and on, then on and on, about a turn of the (last) century pro-slavery figure—all this as part of giving DeSantis the benefit of the doubt!
The analysts were crying and tearing their hair as they read the column. Sadly, we're forced to say that we understood.
Professor Gates is plainly a good, decent person, but we're not sure we've ever seen such an obvious application of McCarthyism in the past many years. Eventually, a very good person offered this undisguised tribute to that famous tactic:
GATES: Is it fair to see Governor DeSantis’s attempts to police the contents of the College Board’s A.P. curriculum in African American studies in classrooms in Florida solely as little more than a contemporary version of Mildred Rutherford’s Lost Cause textbook campaign? No. But the governor would do well to consider the company that he is keeping. And let’s just say that he, no expert in African American history, seems to be gleefully embarked on an effort to censor scholarship about the complexities of the Black past with a determination reminiscent of Rutherford’s. While most certainly not embracing her cause, Mr. DeSantis is complicitous in perpetuating her agenda.
Is it fair to fashion DeSantis this way? No, the professor sad.
Still, "the governor would do well to consider [the things we're going to say]." At deeply fraught times like these, that's what the good people say!
For ourselves, we wish the professor would cut it out with his "your [one] tenth great grandfather" framework. That said, Professor Gates is a very high-caliber person. For that reason, we'd have to say that a lesson lurks in the essay he wrote.
According to experts, we tend to turn, at times of extreme polarization, to the model of enemies / friends. We praise blue states for vastly belated performative acts in the wake of George Floyd's brutal death, and we offer accounts of what the Others are doing which may be somewhat slanted.
We may even seem to suggest that lesser beings like the nation's governors have no business "policing [us] historians." Let us experts serve as your philosopher kings, such experts have sometimes said.
"We must not be enemies," Lincoln said. Dr. King, but also Mandela, later said much the same thing.
Respect for Others is a culture. Back in 1865, a vicious lack of respect came along and stole one life away.