We Have Come into His House: The Black Church, Florida’s Stop Woke, and the Fight to Teach Black History – Part II

Old Florida State Capitol, Tallahassee by DXR (CC BY-SA 4.0)

We Have Come Into His House is an essay published in two corresponding parts. The first part specifically examined recent Florida legislation that has restricted and restructured the way classrooms in primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions within the state may explore topics relating to race and racism. Part Two will closely explore the historical context that informed the passage of the aforementioned legislative measures in Florida. Part Two of We Have Come Into His House continues discussion from Part One that centers the response of faith communities across the state that have created and/or hosted Black history courses in response to these legislative acts.

II. The Critical Race Theory Moral Panic and the Weaponization of Woke

In a time of increased political polarization, the state of Florida enacted a series of sweeping legislation that radically altered how public educators within the state may broach subjects pertaining to race and racism during classroom instruction. Namely, Florida’s HB7, which ushers in new mandates as to when public educators may explore issues pertaining to race and social justice, HB 999, which directly targets diversity equity, and inclusion initiatives in the state, and other restrictions on classroom content, have produced “wholesale restructuring of race and social justice education” in Florida’s public schools.

HB7 (or the Stop W.O.K.E. Act signed into law on Friday April 22, 2022) purports to be the first of its kind in the nation, and since its enactment, similar legislation has emerged across the nation.  Consequently, Florida has served as the vanguard of sorts as it concerns banning Black history and DEI initiatives. More particularly, in the wake of Florida’s recent legislation, several state legislatures across the country have sought to ban the teaching Black history, in addition to teachings on gender and sexuality. 

These bans typically center on what is mischaracterized as Critical Race Theory in the instance of states like Virginia and Arkansas or the rejection of an African American Studies AP course and the aforementioned laws passed in Florida. States like Alabama and Indiana have also implemented legislation that in some ways mirror key provisions of HB 999. Idaho has banned mandatory DEI statements across state governments. 

The overall justification for this growing trend in state laws across the US typically revolves around contentions that failure to implement such measures would allow for the indoctrination of children. These bans have also resulted in the removal of thousands of books and other educational materials, mostly focusing on issues or race and racism, from public school libraries nationwide. A report by PEN America found “1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles” during the first half of the 2022-2023 academic year. This represented a 28% increase from the prior six months. The Associated Press issued similar reporting that found “more than 2,500 different books … objected to,” in 2022 with 1,858 unique books receiving objections in 2021. In addition to its reporting, PEN America has created an index of what it refers to as legislative gag orders amounting to 99 pieces of legislation proposed in 33 states.

Scholarship examining race and racism, especially ones that “forthrightly focuses on race and challenges common understandings of race and history” routinely meet challenges. Nevertheless, the legislation emerging out of Florida and other states represent one of the greatest such intensifications in recent memory. Professor Katherine Russell-Brown reasons these laws are a “devastating and powerful force … that diminishes certain forms of  antebellum anti-literacy laws and in their current iteration have tangible harm for educators and students alike”. One could argue the recent intensification of efforts to restrict teaching of Black history in recent years sparked from the years long backlash to the 1619 Project, which prompted a response from the Trump administration. Florida’s instruction planning and reporting guidelines, as provided by the State Board of Education, mandated, “Instruction may not utilize material from the 1619 Project,” which made it a harbinger of things to come. 

Much of the aforementioned bans were fueled by the hysteria over Critical Race Theory and the weaponization of the term “woke.” In his book, Dog Whistle Politics, legal scholar Ian Lopez argues that politicians and political operatives racial appeals rely on coded racial appeals—dog whistles—to win elections and/or curry favor for support of regressive policies. Over the past few years, Critical Race Theory and the term woke have become dog whistles to fearmonger and foment rage as a reaction to teachings of race and racism.

The brutal murder of George Floyd, the heinous killing of Breonna Taylor, and harrowing slaughter of Ahmaud Arbury within the span of a few months in the first half of 2020 sparked the largest series of protests in US history according to research conducted by Dr. Erica Chenoweth and the Crowd Sourcing Consortium. Dr. Chenoweth’s estimates, between 15 million to 26 million people in the US participated in protests spawned by these extrajudicial killings.

The moment was quickly referred to as a racial reckoning as various corporations, educational institutions, and individuals alike pledged to confront America’s tortious history with racial inequity. The moment dissipated nearly as swiftly as it materialized.

This is part of a larger pattern akin to how the “collective determination to redress the wrongs of slavery evaporated under opposition.” In contemporary times, “the popular groundswell in support of a true racial reckoning rejected the dominant colorblind racial frame and produced considerable anxiety among political conservatives in the context of the pandemic and a hotly contested election cycle” as legal scholar LaToya Baldwin Clark explains. In a Yale Law Journal article she further expounds upon this history by stating the ensuing aftermath of these historic protests against white supremacy and state-sanctioned violence conservative operatives, “mobilized to resist race-conscious demands for racial justice … through a caricatured account of Critical Race Theory.”

Christopher F. Rufo, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, led the charge in manufacturing the conflict over Critical Race Theory, and in the process thrust an obscure legal analytical framework into the forefront of the national consciousness. He brazenly admitted the feigned moral panic around Critical Race Theory was by design, and the aforesaid design was one crafted in bad faith. In a series of tweets published on March 15 2021 he wrote:

We have successfully frozen their brand—“critical race theory”—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans. 

In another series of tweets published on March 25, 2021, he continued, “I am quite intentionally redefining what ‘critical race theory’ means in the public mind, expanding it as a catchall for the new racial orthodoxy. People won’t read Derrick Bell, but when their kid is labeled an ‘oppressor’ in first grade, that’s now CRT.” Yet again on June 26, 2021, he posted, “If your school district teaches any of the following concepts, it’s teaching critical race theory: whiteness, white privilege, white fragility, oppressor/oppressed, intersectionality, systemic racism, spirit murder, equity, antiracism, collective guilt, affinity spaces.”

The strategy worked. Critical Race Theory thereby became the latest intellectual bogeyman and a catch-all phrase to denounce any teaching on race its conservatives opposed.  According to research conducted by Media Matters, Fox News alone mentioned the term critical race theory nearly 2,000 times over a period of three and a half months, peaking with 901 mentions in June of 2021. The overall fervor died down after the last election cycle, but by then, the attention it created energized attacks on school boards and the regressive legislation that led to book bans, despite the fact scholars and educators alike repeatedly indicated they merely sought to teach Black history truthfully. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia and pioneering legal scholar who helped shape Critical Race Theory, warns these attacks are merely “the tip of the iceberg.” In an interview with The Guardian, she questioned many rightwing efforts to thwart progress in the realm of civil rights, by asking, “Are [schools] on the side of the neo-segregationist faction? Or are [they] going to stick with the commitments that we’ve celebrated the last 50, 60 years?” This quandary illuminates the present struggle in Florida and across the country, and Crenshaw sees straight through efforts to vilify the theoretical framework she helped develop.

Critical Race Theory is an academic and legal framework whose main thrust revolves around interrogating racism’s role in the foundational structures and systems of society. As a legal and theoretical framework, Critical Race Theory identifies how racism embeds itself in the “laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities.” In the third edition of Critical Race Theory, Ricard Delgado explains that though critical race theorists vary in their understanding of the breadth and scope of the framework, most adhere to basic propositions such as (1) racism is ordinary rather than aberrational, (2) those who benefit from the ordinariness of racism have little incentive to eradicate it and will only do so when it suits their interests, and (3) race is a social construction, meaning that racial classifications do not necessarily correspond to a biological or genetic reality, but rather a social and political one. 

Critical Race Theory therefore is a useful tool in contextualizing the pervasiveness of racism in societal systems and structures, particularly those which deny the existence of racism to contend American institutions are colorblind. This type of analysis is imperative when considering the historical context in which the mechanisms to ameliorate the ill effects of racism have subsequently become tools to undermine racial progress.

Nevertheless, despite the fact primary and secondary students were not being taught Critical Race Theory, it was still depicted as a scapegoat for all that ails public education in America.

Soon thereafter, right-wing efforts signaled the term woke as its next dog whistle to engender support for regressive legislation.

As Drs Elaine Richardson and Alice Ragland explain in their article “#StayWoke: The Language and Literacies of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, “woke” is a term within Black vernacular to connote a sense of being awake or heightened awareness. In the same article, they expound upon this idea further in saying, “The Black word woke, in referring specifically to a political consciousness type of being awake, is an excellent example of how Black people develop African American Language by imbuing it within concepts needing to be expressed efficiently.” Over time it became a dog whistle to connote the opposite of its original purpose, most notably as the alternate title to HB 7.

The controversy over what children learn in school is a tale older than America. Virginia has book bans and censorship reaching as far back as 1660. The United Daughters of the Confederacy teachings on the Lost Cause and their fight to lionize Confederate leaders allowed them to craft a narrative that led to the rise of pro-segregation iconography and propaganda in the Civil Rights Era while simultaneously establishing the framework for historical teachings on the Confederacy for generations. The present iteration of this brand of censorship “disproportionately [focus] on reading that features Black characters and race-related themes.” 

Derrick Bell spent the latter portion of his career as a legal scholar, who over time, arrived at the “unsettling conclusion: racism is so deeply rooted in the makeup of American society that it has been able to reassert itself after each successive wave of reform aimed at eliminating it.” The current fight over Critical Race Theory, woke, DEI, and proxy for Black people evince the prescience of Bell’s illation.

III. The Black Church Teaching Black History 

And now it falls to the Black Church to teach Black History in the wake of this unsettling legislation.  Consider – as we mentioned in Part I – Agape Perfecting Praise and Worship Center’s African American History masterclass, which meets the fourth Wednesday of every month, unless scheduling conflicts dictate otherwise. Each class has about 100 people attend, half of whom are primary and secondary school students attending nearby schools, the other half being adults from all walks of life. In many ways, the course is an outgrowth of the work Agape has done for nearly three decades. With Pastor Riley at the helm, Agape has provided an array of services to children and parents in the area since its start in 1998. At times operating alone, at times collaborating with the city via neighborhood matching grants, Agape has offered educational enrichment for local children, parenting classes, and other forms of engaging programs. In an interview with the author of this article, she described how Agape has provided parenting classes for local parents, educational enrichment classes for local youth, and other engaging programs. Pastory Riley endeavored to offer these services in part because she found “One of the ways to preserve the integrity of the community was to engage children who would be otherwise idle.” In deciding to host the African American History master class, she said, “We’re not governed by the same legislation… [Florida’s government] can do what it does and we will do what we believe we need to do to ensure our children are taught the truth.” She continued by saying, “It is important for our children to know they come from a great lineage, that they can say, ‘I come from people who have been able to build this country, so certainly I can build my community and my family.” The African American History master class at Agape performs this function.

W.E.B. Du Bois noted the omission of Africa from the world history of his day, lamenting, “There are those, nevertheless who would write universal history and leave out Africa…” His contemporary, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson, deemed the father of Negro History, uttered the same lament, when he launched the first Negro History Week during the second week in February of 1926 to coincide with celebrations of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson was inspired in part to initiate Negro History Week when he joined thousands of Black people who traveled across the country to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation, a three-week event that took palace in Chicago during the summer of 1915. Upon his return from the celebration, Woodson decided to co-found the Association for the Study of Negro Life, and within a few years, he would encourage Black civic organizations to publish findings he and other scholars documented in the Journal of Negro History. After much success in disseminating knowledge of Black achievement among various organizations, he found it necessary to expand the initiative’s impact. He then issued a press release in 1925 announcing Negro History Week. Negro History Week eventually evolved into Negro History Month, which is now commonly referred to as Black History Month or African American History Month. Despite more than a century of efforts to preserve and share the history of Black people in America, there has been constant tensions to continue this legacy. These efforts have become important as schools across the country at every level often neglect this history.

Across eras, across regions, across pedagogical models, modern education in the United States has failed Black children.  Scholars like R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy have found even in suburban school districts experience “peculiar” both race and class-based educational achievement gaps, along with considerable gaps in everyday schooling experiences.  In an effort to explain this phenomenon, Woodson wrote as much in the opening salvos of his foundational text The Mis-education of the Negro:

The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed the weaker peoples.

The Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of the oppressor … When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions … The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius 

Carter G. Woodson referred to this as “the seat of the trouble.” 

Black churches have historically unseated this trouble. Since its inception, the Black church has been an incubator of Black culture and sustainer of Black life. Historically speaking, the Black church was one of the few places Black people could regularly gather and express themselves freely without fear of reprisal or retribution. Dr. Imani Perry, Henry A. Morss, Jr. and Elisabeth Morss Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, Sexuality, and African American Studies at Harvard University, describes, “[C]hurches were the earliest [Black] American institutions, and given that at the core of Black American culture as the distinct form of Christianity that Black Americans created on these shores.” She further elaborates “the idea of faith as a practical repository, and as an intellectual and ideological orientation looking toward freedom that stood in the face of enslavement and Jim Crow and all manner of violence faced by Black America.” In this way, the Black church not only was a sacred space, but the hub of intellectual and ideological formation for its members.

In his foundational work, The Mis-education of the Negro, Carter G.  Woodson described the Black church as “a great asset of the race” which required investment to make its future. He added, the Black church “has taken the lead in education in the schools of the race, it has supplied a forum for the thought of the ‘highly educated’ Negro.” Esteemed educator Benjamin Elijah Mays, who served as president of Morehouse College and as a “spiritual mentor” to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed these sentiments and framed it as such, “Certainly the Negro church has been the training school that has given the masses of the race opportunity to develop.” 

Esteemed institutions like Bennett College, Clark University, Claflin College, Meharry Medical College, Morgan State University, Philander Smith College, Rust College owe their founding to the collective efforts of the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Free African Society, founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, developed a reading class into their Sunday school curriculum in 1795. Members quickly opened their homes, tents and other property to provide space for the classes. In essence, this tradition of education within the Black church is as old as the church itself.

Consequently, Black churches have historically filled gaps in their communities when educational institutions failed, and thus as archivist Howard Robinson of Alabama State University describes, “It’s not farfetched to think a [Black] church is going to be able to provide educational opportunities where they see public institutions failing.” Harvard professor Jarvis R. Givens regards this tradition of fugitivity, what he refers to as “fugitive pedagogy,” as a “social and rhetorical frame by which we might interpret Black Americans’ pursuit to enact humanizing and affirming practices of teaching and learning.” 

When Black churches across Florida began to organize in an effort to teach Black history, they participated in a continuum of historical efforts to educate its community. In bygone eras this may have meant literally teaching congregants to read and write, which would have been a radical enterprise a century and a half ago. Today in states like Florida, it means churches hosting courses taught by a cadre of activists, educators, and scholars to teach the history of Black people no longer taught in public schools. As a result, when pastors like Sharon Riley opened the doors of the churches they pastor, they determined within themselves to act. When professors like LaVon Bracy volunteered to teach the history Florida sought to deprive from its students, she engaged in a rich tradition centuries in the making. They elected not to wait for the courts to sort through complicated legal analysis or defer action until the next election, but rather they would work with what they had to serve those who would come. Those 100 some odd congregants who filled Agape Praise and Worship Center in southwest Orlando, demonstrated a desire to confront America’s past so that they may envision a different future. And as they come together, in His house, they pray they will see it. ♦

Timothy Welbeck is the Director for the Center of Anti-Racism at Temple University.  A Civil Rights Attorney by training, Timothy is a scholar of law, race, and cultural studies whose work has allowed him to contribute to various media outlets, such as the CNN, CBS, BBC Radio 4, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR, The Huffington Post, WHYY, REVOLT TV, etc. Timothy lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and three children. 

Recommended Citation

Welbeck, Timothy. “We Have Come into His House: The Black Church, Florida’s Stop Woke, and the Fight to Teach Black History – Part II.” Canopy Forum, April 25, 2024. canopyforum.org/2024/04/25/we-have-come-into-his-house-the-black-church-floridas-stop-woke-and-the-fight-to-teach-black-history-part-ii/.

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