Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images; Maskot/Getty Images
Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images; Maskot/Getty Images
How should U.S history be told, and who gets to tell it? Debate over these questions has raged for years – but nowhere is it more pronounced right now than in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis and others are waging a battle against history courses that highlight the role of slavery in our nation's past. A key point of conflict: The 1619 Project, the New York Times-led public discourse effort – and now documentary series on Hulu – that's been trying to do just that for the past four years.
Host Brittany Luse chats with NPR's Giulia Heyward to get the download on Gov. DeSantis' attempts to ban AP African American studies in his state. Then, Brittany sits down with two experts who contributed to The 1619 Project: Dorothy Roberts, a legal scholar and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Leslie Alexander, a historian at Rutgers University. They make the case that slavery led to some of our biggest political fissures today, and discuss why it's important for all Americans to understand those connections.
The interview highlights below are adapted from an episode of It's Been A Minute. Follow us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, and keep up with us on Twitter. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
The fight in Florida against African American studies
Brittany Luse: Can you summarize what's been going on with this battle over AP African American studies?
Giulia Heyward: In August, roughly 60 schools introduced a pilot course. This would be an AP African American studies course, which high schoolers would be able to take for college credit. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as well as other education officials, are opposed to the course because they feel as if it teaches a woke indoctrination to students. Florida education officials decided to ban the course, saying that they will not let AP African American studies be taught in high schools in Florida... It's really about how we as a country contend with some of the uglier parts of our past. Is it something that we shy away from and choose not to discuss in classrooms, or that we only discuss with a specific age group? Or is it something that we embrace and we have those uncomfortable conversations?
Reproductive control that is rooted in slavery
Dorothy Roberts: In a patriarchal society, children would have the status of their fathers, but they changed it to the rule that would apply to animals. That the status of a piglet, for example, is that of the mother and is owned by the person who owns the mother. And so that allowed for white enslavers to profit from their sexual assaults of Black women. But it also meant that Black women were deemed to give birth to enslavable children. And that idea not only is the foundation of the invention of race in America, but also the beginning of this idea that Black women's childbearing is dangerous.
Old ideas that still influence policy
Luse: Dorothy, something you said in your essay is that the way that race was developed, as we understand it... was very reliant on policing Black women's reproductive health, reproductive systems, and their sexuality. And it changed forever how Black women's sexuality was viewed and is still viewed today. Tell us more about that.
Roberts: The stereotype that Black women are innately unfit to care for their own children, and passing on an unhealthy, antisocial set of behaviors and lifestyles to their children – those ideas heavily influenced social policy in America to today. For example, the "welfare queen," that Black women had babies just to get a welfare check and then they would spend the money on themselves and neglect their children. That stereotype... was powerful enough to fuel the restructuring of welfare in America.
We can look at prison policy. Child welfare policy. The removal of Black children at astronomical rates from their families also promoted by this idea that Black mothers don't really care about their children... So social policy in the United States today that somehow, if not substantially, has a link to the idea that Black women's childbearing and sexuality is a social problem that needs to be fixed, that needs to be policed, that should be the subject of punitive social policies.
Fear of rebellion
Luse: Leslie, you said that by the 1700s there had been this longstanding fear that enslaved Black people would revolt against their white enslavers. But the successful Haitian uprising of 1791 turned that fear into a reality... What actions did the white men who were in power in what we now call the United States, what actions did they take in response to that?
Alexander: Well, what we see is a ramping up of policing. The slave patrols are put on alert. They're also surveilling and ramping up their monitoring of free black communities as well. There's concern that alliances would emerge. And of course in situations where conspiracies are actually revealed, then we see whole new waves of legislation limiting everything from freedom of movement, denying access to education, to implementing new laws that monitor and surveil cultural activities. This is where we start to see drumming disallowed. There's even laws passed saying that dancing is illegal. Expressions or manifestations of black joy present a potential danger to the stability of the institution of slavery.
The link between race and fear
Luse: We see that process play out over and over throughout American history... You make the argument that white people are not just fearful of black rebellion, they're also fearful of black success or black progress. After reconstruction, we see Black people start to participate in government, holding public office, opening schools, getting educated, starting businesses. And the reaction to that is brutal and swift. That pattern continues on whether it's through Jim Crow, Black codes, and into some of the laws we see today. Why would white people be scared of Black progress?
Alexander: Ah, this is a really complicated question, but I think it's a really important one. I think white people believe that they have a lot more to lose than they actually do. But I think their fear is that they lose control... They'll have to reckon with how poor white people are treated. One of the ways white elites have historically been able to keep poor white people in check is to basically tell them, "It doesn't matter how poor you are, it doesn't matter how much the policies that we've created cause you to suffer and struggle. At least you're not Black." If you remove racism, there's actually then going to have to be a reckoning.
And so from the perspective of a white elite person, then the whole system gets upended. And from their perspective, they then lose everything. But of course, from my perspective, what that means is that then everybody else gets to win.
This episode of 'It's Been a Minute' was produced by Jessica Mendoza and Corey Antonio Rose. We had fact-checking help from Sarah Knight, Brin Winterbottom, Susie Cummings, and Julia Wohl. It was edited by Jessica Placzek. Our executive producer is Veralyn Williams. Our VP of programming is Yolanda Sangweni and our senior VP of programming is Anya Grundmann.