On December 15, 2021, at a rally endorsing the proposed Stop W.O.K.E. Act that he would sign into law in April of 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis declared: “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.”
But what, precisely, is “woke”? Definitions differ, but the act explicitly prohibits any public school teaching that suggests an “individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”
Publishers hoping to sell their textbooks to Florida’s public schools must now consider whether an objective account of Jim Crow segregation is regarded by Florida state textbook reviewers as “teaching kids to hate our country.” Could a textbook’s account of historical bigotry, even in its most general terms, cause a white student mental distress?
K-6 social studies textbook publisher Studies Weekly, in fact, seemed to have been so intimidated by Florida’s laws and its governor’s rhetoric that it dramatically revised its account of Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience against Montgomery, Alabama’s Jim Crow laws.
Originally, as reported recently in the New York Times, Studies Weekly’s description of Rosa Parks’ protest was clear and compelling:
“In 1955, Rosa Parks broke the law. In her city, the law said African Americans had to give up their seats on the bus if a white person wanted to sit down. She would not give up her seat. The police came and took her to jail.”
Studies Weekly’s first revision for Florida textbook review consisted of the following:
“Rosa Parks showed courage. One day she rode the bus. She was told to move to a different seat because of the color of her skin. She did not. She did what she believed was right.”
Apparently, pointing out the key fact that Montgomery required racial segregation in buses might teach children to hate our country.
The next Studies Weekly version left out any reference to race whatsoever:
“Rosa Parks showed courage. One day, she rode the bus. She was told to move to a different seat. She did not. She did what she believed was right.”
In the second revision, Rosa Parks is being stubborn and brave for some unknown reason. A child who otherwise knew nothing of Parks might wonder why her refusal is being termed courageous and why this person’s story is worth reading.
Censoring this account made it simultaneously boring and strangely opaque, a surreal narrative ostensibly supporting a national myth of American exceptionalism perceived as being under threat.
While the publisher has since issued a statement denouncing the most radical changes made by its editors, and while the Florida Department of Education says that Studies Weekly “overreached,” the Stop W.O.K.E. Act evokes historical parallels of similar efforts to censor narratives on behalf of the nation state.[i]
In Vladimir Polyakov’s short story, “The Story of Fireman Prokhorchuk,” printed in Russia in 1953, a novice writer asks the editor of a journal for his assessment of “A Noble Deed”—a short story she has written. Her innocuous tale features a firefighter named Prokhorchuk who one “dark and quiet” night rescues someone from a fire.
Presumably fearing that elements of the story might suggest shortcomings in Stalin-led Soviet society (Stalin died the year the story was published), the editor strips “A Noble Deed” of anything that could be construed as criticism.
The fact that “[n]ot a single electric light was burning” in the night alarms the editor, who asks “What’s this? Sounds as if, in our country, we make bulbs that don’t work?” and insists “It could reflect on our bulbs. Delete it! If they aren’t lit, what need is there to mention them?” Using similar reasoning, the editor cuts other elements of the story, including the fire itself.
After editing, “A Noble Deed” now read as follows:
“It was the dead of night—three o’clock. Some people slept while others kept a sharp lookout. From the fourth-floor window of a large gray house somebody shouted: “We are not on fire!” “Good boy, Prokhorchuk!” said Fire Chief Gorbushin to Fireman Prokhorchuk, a middle-aged Ukrainian with large black mustachios, “you’re following the regulations.” Prokhorchuk smiled and aimed a jet of water at his mustachio. It was dawning.”[ii]
History textbooks in Florida are being rewritten to avoid offending a censor–and the result will likely be dull, strangely distorted histories that skip over truths vital for understanding how America’s past shapes its present. The job of the American history teacher is to help students face, at age-appropriate levels, of course, the complex, sometimes uplifting, often painful story of our nation’s past. Mr. DeSantis is making that important work harder to accomplish.
[i] In response to the New York Times’ story, Studies Weekly’s issued a statement acknowledging that they had in fact been trying to comply with HB 7 (a mundane title of the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act”), but that “individuals in our curriculum team severely overreacted in their interpretation of HB 7 and made unapproved revisions.” Studies Weekly wrote, “[w]e find the omission or altering of historical facts to be abhorrent and do not defend it.” https://www.studiesweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Studies-Weekly-Response-to-the-NY-Times-Article-1.pdf The Times also noted that “The Florida Department of Education suggested that Studies Weekly had overreached. Any publisher that ‘avoids the topic of race when teaching the Civil Rights movement, slavery, segregation, etc. would not be adhering to Florida law,’ the department said in a statement.”
[ii] Polyakov, Vladimir. “The Story of a Story or Fireman Prokhorchuk.” Partisan Review, vol. 28, 1961, p. 515.