Heated debates within the Black community, beginning as early as the first decades of the 19th century, have ranged from what names “the race” should publicly call itself (William Whipper vs. James McCune Smith) and whether or not enslaved men and women should rise in arms against their masters (Henry Highland Garnet vs. Frederick Douglass). Economic development vs. political rights? (Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. Du Bois). Should Black people return to Africa? (Marcus Garvey vs. W.E.B. Du Bois). Should we admit publicly the pivotal role of African elites in enslaving our ancestors? (Ali Mazrui vs. Wole Soyinka).
Add to these repeated arguments over sexism, socialism and capitalism, reparations, antisemitism and homophobia. It is often surprising to students to learn that there has never been one way to “be Black” among Black Americans, nor have Black politicians, activists and scholars ever spoken with one voice or embraced one ideological or theoretical framework. Black America, that “nation in a nation,” as the Black abolitionist Martin R. Delany put it, has always been as varied and diverse as the complexions of the people who have identified, or been identified, as its members.
I found these debates so fascinating, so fundamental to a fuller understanding of Black history, that I coedited a textbook that features them, and designed Harvard’s Introduction to African American Studies course, which I teach with the historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, to acquaint students with a wide range of them in colorful and sometimes riotous detail. More recent debates over academic subjects like Kimberlé Crenshaw’s insightful theory of “intersectionality,” reparations, Black antisemitism, critical race theory and the 1619 Project — several of which made Mr. DeSantis’s hit list — will be included in the next edition of our textbook and will no doubt make it onto the syllabus of our introductory course.
As a consultant to the College Board as it developed its A.P. course in African American studies, I suggested the inclusion of a “pro and con” debate unit at the end of its curriculum because of the inherent scholarly importance of many of the contemporary hot-button issues that conservative politicians have been seeking to censor, but also as a way to help students understand the relation between the information they find in their textbooks and efforts by politicians to say what should and what should not be taught in the classroom.
Why shouldn’t students be introduced to these debates? Any good class in Black studies seeks to explore the widest range of thought voiced by Black and white thinkers on race and racism over the long course of our ancestors’ fight for their rights in this country. In fact, in my experience, teaching our field through these debates is a rich and nuanced pedagogical strategy, affording our students ways to create empathy across differences of opinion, to understand “diversity within difference,” and to reflect on complex topics from more than one angle. It forces them to critique stereotypes and canards about who “we are” as a people and what it means to be “authentically Black.” I am not sure which of these ideas has landed one of my own essays on the list of pieces the state of Florida found objectionable, but there it is.
The Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson, who in 1926 invented what has become Black History Month, was keenly aware of the role of politics in the classroom, especially Lost Cause interventions. “Starting after the Civil War,” he wrote, “the opponents of freedom and social Justice decided to work out a program which would enslave the Negroes’ mind inasmuch as the freedom of the body has to be conceded.”
“It was well understood,” Woodson continued, “that if by the teaching of history the white man could be further assured of his superiority and the Negro could be made to feel that he had always been a failure and that the subjection of his will to some other race is necessary the freedman, then, would still be a slave.”