Seeking truth

Advocates call for Black history accuracy in new curriculum

Supporters joined Rev. RB Holmes (center) to call for curriculum change.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
Attorney Mutaqee Akbar asked for truth in teaching Black history.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
County Commissioner Carolyn Cummins expressed confidence that the controversial curriculum will be changed.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Every minute of a press conference where participants expressed disgust over a new controversial curriculum had the feeling of an “in your face” expression.

The group led by Rev. RB Holmes and attorney Mutaqee Akbar showed up last Thursday in front of the state Department of Education building under a scorching morning sun. It was an expression of the gravity of a stance against a curriculum that indicates students should be taught that enslaved people “developed skills” that were “beneficial.” 

Holmes said the group that included three other preachers showed up “because faith without works is dead.”

He added, “We cannot get weary in well doing.”

The controversial new rule that the state’s Board of Education recently approved, requires educators to teach that enslaved people developed skills to their benefit. The curriculum is part of content being circulated by Prager University, which prides itself on being “a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education.”

PragerU, which isn’t accredited and claims to have seven million viewers on its website, was founded by two conservative talk show hosts in 2009.

Outrage has been heard around the country since the state Board of Education took on the curriculum that pushes PragerU’s philosophy. It is the latest in a long list of changes in Florida’s education system that Holmes has been pushing back for change.

The PragerU controversy is the latest in a series of education-related legislation passed during this year’s session. They included laws on sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 schools and curriculum standards for African American history.

Additionally, the College Board is engaged in a battle over an AP Psychology course. New laws also attack higher education in the state, calling for an end to diversity, equity and inclusion in college programs.

Holmes and Akbar sent a letter to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz urging him to correct the statements about slavery being beneficial to enslaved people. They have not gotten a response from the state.

“This secretary and governor would not even delete the terrible demeaning, dehumanizing language from their task force as it relates to teaching African American history per a 1994 mandate,” Holmes said. “We still believe that enslaved people did not benefit from slavery. The slave masters did. You ought to teach history from an accurate, factual, and honest perspective.”

Joe Paramore, policy director for Florida Council of Churches, also denounced the curriculum at the press conference. He said he plans to work with Akbar, who is president of the local chapter of the NAACP, to petition accreditation organizations to begin an investigation in the lack of academic freedom in Florida class rooms. 

The call for change apparently won’t stop there, as Akbar also announced that a panel discussion on the subject will be held on Aug. 26 at Bethel Family Life Center, beginning at noon. 

City Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox pointed to the state Republican legislators as culprits in the overhaul of education in Florida. Voting is the way to guarantee change, she said.

“In order for us to set our educational trajectory on the right path for all people, regardless of political party, we must vote to elect our secretary of education,” Williams-Cox said. “You cannot lie down and let a dictator tell you how to draw Florida out.”

Holmes called the PragerU curriculum “un-American” and “un-democratic.”

It is “filled with nationalism mistruth, oppression and discrimination,” he said. “If you could teach that backward-looking, and not forward-looking curriculum, then my God; you ought to teach African American history to our children.”

DeSantis, who is campaigning for the Republican nomination to run the president, hasn’t responded directly to questions about Blacks brought from Africa learning skills while enslaved. However, he has defended the Board of Education’s decision to adopt the PragerU listing.

Diaz skipped an opportunity to explain  the Education Department’s stance at a town hall meeting last Thursday night at Antioch Baptist Church in Miami Gardens. Organizers said he agreed to attend but Diaz said on social media “there was nothing sudden” about decision not to show up.

At the press conference earlier in the day, Akbar said Black children should know the truth about slavery.

Black kids shouldn’t get “a watered-down education,” he said.

Akbar went on to appeal to the Education Department “to stop inserting politics into education.”

“There is no benefit attached to slavery,” he said. “We will continue to demand that you take out instruction stating that there were acts of violence perpetrated by African Americans. Our kids need to know the truth.”

Dot Inman Johnson, a former educator for 28 years, also participated in the press conference along with County Commissioner Carolyn Cummings. 

Inman Johnson said she is “appalled by what’s happening under this educational system and under governor DeSantis.”

Inman Johnson, a former Tallahassee mayor who is running for a City Commission seat, also expressed concern for educators. Teacher around the state have been uncertain about what refusing to teach the curriculum could cost them.

“They are not allowed to teach the truth without being threatened with possible prison sentences or fines for doing their jobs,” Inman Johnson said.

She also called William Allen,  a member of Florida’s African American History Standards Workgroup, an instigator for putting the controversial section on slavery in the curriculum. Allen, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, defended his role during a recent interview on  NPR’s Morning Edition with host Steve Inskeep.

He was asked specifically about the controversial reference to enslaved people learning skills.

 “I think the sentence explains itself,” Allen told Inskeep. “Its grammar is certainly perfectly clear when refers to the fact that those who were held in slavery possess skills, whether they developed them before being held in slavery, while being held in slavery or subsequently to being held in slavery, from which they benefited when they applied themselves in the exertion of those skills. That’s not a statement that is at all controversial. The facts sustain it. The testimonies of the people who lived the history sustain it.”

However, Cumming had doubts about the reference enduring.

“I’m confident if they will review and analyze the content of the material, as most of us have done, I feel assured that they will rescind that decision,” Cummings said. “The Prager University platform and many other my story videos are one-side and inherently bias.”

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