WGSS Prof Rod Ferguson publishes op-ed in the Chronicle for Higher Education

January 30, 2023

Fear of a Black-Studies Planet: There’s a reason Ron DeSantis feels threatened by AP African American studies.


By  Roderick A. Ferguson

Anyone committed to free, independent thought should be alarmed by the Florida Department of Education’s attempts to prohibit Advanced Placement high-school courses on African American studies. We should be appalled that Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration seek to make it unlawful to teach and study intersectionality, the Black Lives Matter movement, Black feminism, Black queer studies, reparations, and Black freedom struggles. These are all matters essential to the history and public culture of the United States. DeSantis and co. have also shown a desire to ban the critiquing of the state, capitalism, and white supremacy.

The Florida Department of Education’s call to censor authors like myself appears to stem from our dissatisfaction with the status quo and for our writing and research about the need to change economic and political structures. Others are cast as suspect simply because of who they are: Kimberlé Crenshaw is objectionable because she’s a “founder of intersectionality.” Angela Davis is suspicious because she’s a “self-avowed communist and Marxist,” and bell hooks is inappropriate because she used language like “white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” With its rationale, the Florida’s education department impugns calls to action as well as to self-embodiment. In doing so, it tells us what the objection is truly about: You have no right to call for change, and you have no right to be that change.

This “culture war” targeting intellectuals, artists, and academics has a long, distressing history. In 1971, Lewis F. Powell Jr., later a Supreme Court justice, sent a secret memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Titled “Confidential Memorandum: Attack on American Free Enterprise System” (now known as the Powell Memo), the document tried to alert private-business owners to critiques of the “free enterprise system,” critiques that were coming not only from leftists but “from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences and from politicians.” In particular, Powell was worried about the charismatic and prolific nature of certain scholars, fretting that they exerted outsized influence.

The memorandum did more than set an institutional agenda for policing thought by proposing ways to control textbooks, media, academic hiring, and so on. It also set in motion a collective hysteria among a right-wing confederacy of politicians and business owners, a neurosis about any intellectual production critical of the given social order.

In contrast to Powell’s demonizing of young people participating in social change, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. waxed enthusiastic about the “youthquake” and what it meant for a just society. In a 1968 speech, he said:

It is difficult to exaggerate the creative contributions of young Negroes. They took nonviolent resistance, first employed in Montgomery, Alabama in mass dimensions, and developed original forms of application—sit-ins, freedom rides, and wade-ins. To accomplish these, they first transformed themselves… Leadership passed into the hands of Negroes, and their white allies began learning from them. This was a revolutionary and wholesome development for both.

King rightly pointed to a historical shift in which young people were developing their capacity to embody the changes that they were calling for, a phenomenon that occasioned the Powell memorandum and motivated the reactionary agendas of the right.

In the 1980s and 1990s, another version of these so-called “culture wars” erupted when conservative politicians led a campaign to censor work by LGBTQ+ artists and artists of color. Like the Florida administration, those politicians relied on a homophobic discourse about indoctrination as well. The white gay artist David Wojnarowicz, whose work and identity were placed in the crosshairs, said of the politicians Jesse Helms and William E. Dannemeyer, two vocal opponents of LGBTQ+ art and rights: “Their hysteria gives the impression that these few images will cause the foundations of civilization to crumble and family structures to implode.” In short, the hysterical reaction to Wojnarowicz’s art followed racist, homophobic, sexist, and transphobic discourses. What does this hysteria look like today? Black faculty constitute roughly 6 percent of all faculty in U.S. colleges and universities, yet the state of Florida considers six Black professors and one high-school course as if these tiny forces would bring down the world as Florida officials know it.

We should all be worried by political and economic maneuvers that seek to throttle exploration.

To those of us who have studied Black social struggles, there are obvious reasons why the governor of Florida would target an African American studies course. With large and notable contributions from Black LGBTQ+ people, Black-freedom movements and the writings of progressive Black intellectuals have been major inspirations for many liberation struggles and cultural shifts. Consider the influence Black artists, activists, and intellectuals had on the women’s, queer, transgender, Asian American, Latinx, and indigenous movements of the late-’60s and early-’70s. It follows that, fearful of the power of Black studies to call for an end to inequality and to change popular opinion about what is acceptable or just, the State of Florida has singled out one course to try and prevent other courses, critiques, and forms of knowledge from following. Maybe if we can prevent this course, we can keep new types of people from emerging because of it, the officials seem to say.

In a growing authoritarian climate that fears that critical thinking will lead to engagement, interrogation, and accountability, we might recall the remarks of the celebrated (and often banned) writer, Toni Morrison. In her 1993 Nobel lecture, she warned of social forces that were bent on killing language as a mode of inquiry. She said, “Unreceptive to interrogation, [a dead language] cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences.” We should all be worried by political and economic maneuvers that seek to throttle exploration. Their aim is to beat out of people their capacity to see the limits of our world, to dream beyond those limitations, and to plant the seeds for a more just dawn. And to the extent that we abide these maneuvers and revise our curricula to accommodate them, we have participated in the withering of our own humanity and the diminishment of our society.

Because of these outrageous encroachments and the certainty that there will be more, efforts to produce critically oriented curricula are more crucial now than ever. Fortunately, many people understand the urgency of this moment. Organizations like the African American Policy Forum and the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective are devising plans so that the life of the mind will not become the terrain of our surrender. Here, we would do well to heed the words of the Black lesbian, feminist, and socialist writer Audre Lorde, who said in 1982, “To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give up. Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”

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