Florida churches, groups step up to teach Black history and banned books

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Churches and community groups across Florida are throwing themselves into efforts to teach Black history after the state’s controversial move to reject AP African American Studies.

While Florida has pulled the College Board’s course, with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) calling it “indoctrination,” state residents are uniting in their churches, parks and homes to learn about the history of Black Americans, including drawing on material from books that have been removed from school shelves.

“I’m seeing it even with my own daughter who’s 17, a high school senior. She and some of her friends have talked about maybe just … reading on their own and just meeting here at her house or maybe her going to her friend’s house and just reading different books and talking about different books,” said Sharon D. Wright Austin, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

The efforts began at the beginning of the year, when DeSantis, a 2024 White House hopeful, said he would not allow AP African American history in state schools. His administration took issue with topics in the curriculum such as intersectionality, Black queer studies, the Black Lives Matter movement, Black feminist literary thought, the reparations movement and “the Black Study and Black Struggle in the 21st Century.”

“What’s one of the lessons about? Queer theory,” DeSantis said. “Now, who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids. And so when you look to see they have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons, that’s a political agenda. And so we’re on — that’s the wrong side of the line for Florida standards.”

The decision led to a tsunami of criticism from individuals including Pastor Rhonda Thomas, executive director of the nonprofit Faith in Florida (FIF), who says that Republican officials such as DeSantis are attempting to share an inaccurate and diluted version of Black history.

“House Bill 7 passed where the teaching of African American History from our public school systems or universities was being jeopardized and threatened in a way of it not being taught in a truthful manner, but this watered-down version … that was just crazy,” Thomas said.

The state drew further criticism over the summer after it came to light that new education standards include recommendations to teach children about “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Determined to fight back, FIF launched a toolkit made up of guides, videos and reading material, all designed to support faith leaders, community groups and anyone the group says is committed to the teaching of Black history and Black culture “through the lens of truth.” Books used as part of the package range from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates to “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo to the seminal “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.”

Since it launched in late July, 290 congregations in Florida have registered to access the toolkit, with Thomas aiming to have 500 churches in the state eventually sign up.

Other states have also taken interest in the resources, with groups from Pennsylvania to California contacting FIF, including organizations that are not Black churches or part of the Christian community.

“Once this toolkit went out, we also had churches that are led by white faith leaders and Muslims register to teach Black History,” Thomas said. “What stands out is that these states are just as concerned, because many times they know that whatever takes place in Florida, eventually it’s going to hit our states as well.”

And the effort isn’t just coming from houses of worship but also from individuals who want to work outside of the public school system to teach Black history uninhibited.

Austin said organizing at the local level in Gainesville has come from educators and people of color who “take it upon themselves to arrange the different book readings, the banned book readings on their own.”

She pointed to a second-grade teacher she knows who is planning to have a “banned book reading session” and says it has become common for spontaneous groups to form in response to attacks on what is taught in schools.

People “just take it upon themselves to try to help educate kids about classic books that they now are either having removed from their schools, or there is a chance in the future or in the very near future that they will be removed from their schools,” Austin said.

Despite their best efforts, of course, interested organizations will not have nearly the reach of Florida public schools, which teach almost 3 million students. But that isn’t stopping groups from coming to the Sunshine State to shed light on their cause.

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History held its conference in Jacksonville this month, with a seminar called “Banned Book Readout.”

“A Workshop/Gathering in the park to learn about Black History and Black Resistance through the reading, acting, and artistry of ASALH and other banned book authors,” a description read.

Recent data released by the American Library Association (ALA) found that book challenges in school and public libraries across the U.S. reached a record high this year. Between January and September, 695 attempts to challenge library material, affecting 1,915 unique titles, have been made.

Katie Blankenship, who serves as the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, says these newfound connections across neighbors, generations and religions are pivotal to amplifying and building statewide resistance to educational censorship, something that the ACLU is intent on supporting through what it calls “integrated advocacy.”

“That just means bringing in experts from all of our departments and fields of expertise to really look at this issue holistically,” Blankenship said. “How do we not only fight it in the courts, but how do we really support the groundswell of local action? How do we help support statewide strategy and advocacy?”

Part of this strategy includes its statewide coalition, Free to Be Florida, which currently encompasses more than 25 counties represented by grassroots organizations and individuals pushing back on what Blankenship sees as a “gross overstatement overstep by this extremist Florida legislature.”

“Our goal is that we will have every county in Florida before the end of the year involved in the initiative sharing information and uplifting information and collecting data,” Blankenship says.

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