No student is free when history can’t be taught to its fullest

Old books strapping a shiny chain. Forbidden literature locked with a padlock. Dark background.
Photo: Shutterstock

The German motto above the gate at the Auschwitz concentration camp outside of Krakow, Poland, Arbeit macht frei (Work Sets You Free), was made by prisoners in the metalworking labor detail headed by Jan Liwacz (camp number 1010).

If we are to believe by analogy what Florida education officials included in their social studies standards – that students should be taught “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit” – then we must concede that forced metalworking in extreme conditions with barely any food in their stomachs or cloths on their backs while suffering from multiple diseases before waiting to be gassed and cremated was also to the “benefit” of Auschwitz inmates.

Maybe Florida officials would list as “skills” and “benefits” carrying away the articles of clothing and piling them into bundles of those who entered the gas chambers, or lifting the dead and limp bodies and transporting them into the crematoria, or digging deep holes in the baking or frozen ground to hold human remains. What about those who learned the specialized “skill” of tattooing identification numbers on the outer side of the left forearm of inmates at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau?

If inmates believed they were advantaged, other than still being alive, when constructing the cruel lie emblazoned in metal over the gate, why did they deliberately reverse the letter “B” as a camouflaged mark of resistance?

In fact, most of those enslaved in German jails and concentration camps were already highly skilled educators, merchants, craftspeople in all the trades, physicians, lawyers, shop owners, construction workers, childcare workers, musicians, tailors, jewelers.

Nazi officials imposed the gate sign as a fraud, a lie, a deceit of false hope and as a justification for the terrors they perpetrated. Maybe somewhere in the recesses of their corrupted souls they actually believed that their mission held benefits for their victims. Maybe Nazi officials actually believed their work somehow set them — the perpetrators —free from…who knows what: the vermin, the conspirators, the race polluters, the killers of God, and whatever else the age-old propaganda had sold them.

The Florida social studies standards are an outgrowth of Governor and not-so-popular presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis’s anti-woke crusade intended to whitewash U.S. history. The new standards have been backed unanimously by the Florida State Board of Education

DeSantis seemed to double down on the standards at a press conference:  “They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life,” DeSantis said, adding that “scholars” put together the standards, which he asserted were “rooted in whatever is factual.”

(Hey, these enslaved blacksmiths would have been of great “benefit” had they lived long enough to assist in the making of Arbeit macht frei).

Actual historians, however, prove DeSantis and Florida education officials wrong. Of the 16 “slaves” they mention to have developed beneficial skills while enslaved, fully half of them were never enslaved, and many others developed skills after gaining their freedom.

For example, the Florida Department of Education included Henry Blair as a slave who became a blacksmith and an inventor. According to and other sites, no information exists that Blair was enslaved. He was a farmer and invented a corn planter and cotton planter, and he became the second Black person to receive a U.S. patent.

In another instance, Florida policymakers listed James Forten (1766-1842), whom they assert acquired shoemaking skills while enslaved, though there is no documentation that Forten was either a shoemaker or enslaved.

In fact, most of those kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the Americas were already highly skilled educators, merchants, craftspeople in all the trades, healers, construction workers, and childcare workers. Africans brought with them, for example, techniques for the irrigation and planting of large-scale fields of rice that was unknown previously on this continent.

The actions by Florida education policymakers are certainly not unprecedented. Pro-slavery advocates argued against the abolitionists by asserting that slaves were well-treated and happy. A writer in the 1835 publication ironically titled The Liberator claimed that slavery in the U.S. was the best form of slavery that ever existed:

“[W]e…deny that slavery is sinful or inexpedient. We deny that it is wrong in the abstract. We assert that it is the natural condition of man; that there ever has been, and there ever will be slavery; and we not only claim for ourselves the right to determine for ourselves the relations between master and slave, but we insist that the slavery of the Southern States is the best regulation of slavery, whether we take into consideration the interests of the master or of the slave, that has ever been devised.”

The equivalent of an “anti-woke” legislator of his time was U.S. Congressman James Henry Hammond from South Carolina. On February 1, 1836, he gave what was to be the first pro-slavery speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, during which he spoke for approximately two hours on the benefits of the institution of slavery and the menace of abolitionism and human rights for Black people.

“Slavery is said to be an evil… But is no evil,” he said. “On the contrary, I believe it to be the greatest of all the great blessings which a kind Providence has bestowed upon our glorious region… As a class, I say it boldly; there is not a happier, more contented race upon the face of the earth… Lightly tasked, well clothed, well fed—far better than the free laborers of any country in the world… their lives and persons protected by the law, all their sufferings alleviated by the kindest and most interested care…”

Hammond ran for and was elected governor of South Carolina in 1842.

In the ideal classroom, the overriding climate is one of safety. This is not, however, the same as “comfort,” for very often, comfortable situations might feel fine, but are not necessarily of pedagogic value. “Safety” in this case refers to an environment where educators facilitate a learning process: one in which students can share openly without fear of retribution or blame; where they can travel to the outer limits of their “learning edges” in the knowledge that they will be supported and not left dangling.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill (HB) 7, his so-called “Anti-Woke” law with provisions that prohibit Florida educators from classroom discussions about the racial history of the United States that may cause white students to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” about their race.

All of these apologists and advocates for the horrific institution of slavery, including the current crop of Floridian leaders, have imposed a fraud, a lie, a deceit of false hope and a justification for the terrors perpetrated. Maybe somewhere in the recesses of their corrupted souls they actually believed that slavery held benefits for their victims.

Maybe the governor and policymakers actually believed that their historical revisionism somehow sets them—Christian white nationalists—free from…who knows what: the guilt, the shame, the unearned white privilege they “benefit” from through the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the continuing systemic racism that ravages the nation.

One thing is clear, however. Once their policies are fully implemented, students will be the ultimate losers. Their classroom work will certainly not set them free.

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