I thought about the teachers in Florida I had spoken to in recent days, who were being asked for the first time to document and report their Black History Month activities to administrators. I thought about the bravery of Kenneth McElroy, a Black middle-school civics teacher in the Tampa area, who told me he had no plans to stop sharing the truth of the nation’s history with his students, regardless of what the state law said.
“I come from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Mr. Elroy said. “I’m not going to change how I teach.” Martha Elena Galindo, another Tampa-area educator, described an environment hostile to Black and transgender students. “‘Miss, we’re not bad people,’” she recalled a transgender student telling her one day. “It brought tears to my eyes,” she said.
The College Board could have sent a powerful message by standing with these Americans. Instead, its gestures at accommodation threw them under the bus, right along with bell hooks. A basic reading of the history board officials say they champion would make it clear that such accommodation will satisfy no one.
The question now is whether the majority of Americans in the middle, and at institutions like the College Board, are able to see the backlash clearly, not as some kind of culture war sideshow, but as the very lifeblood of the anti-democratic, sometimes violent political movement gaining currency in the United States.
Black history is a direct threat to this movement. It humanizes the enslaved and their descendants. It lays bare the terrible cost of white supremacy, not only to Black Americans, but to the nation. It opens the door for exactly the reckoning that makes interracial coalitions possible, giving life to democracy and pluralism and stripping would-be tyrants of their power.
The problem is that looking directly at this history is a prospect that terrifies many white Americans. Viewing the exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture — which include the instruments played by enslaved people and shackles made for a small child — it’s not hard to understand why. But the way forward is to confront this history, not bend it to our will, or whitewash it, or wish it away.
It is no coincidence that the Black writers under assault, like Mr. Coates and Ms. hooks, have been militant in refusing to allow America to forget. “The time to remember is now,” Ms. hooks wrote. “The time to speak a counter hegemonic race talk that is filled with the passion of remembrance and resistance is now. All our words are needed.”