Fear of a Black Studies PlanetRoundup
tags: African American studies, Florida, AP, Advanced Placement, LGBTQ history, Ron DeSantis, Queer Studies
Roderick A. Ferguson is a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University.
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.