Fleshing Out History
Throughout American history, efforts to bring the stories and lived experiences of people of color into the broader American narrative have been met with fierce resistance. When SNCC and a broad group of educators organized to make Black studies a feature of the curriculum, states sought to ban — and defund — the teaching and learning of such history. Now, through the Stop Woke Act, Florida seeks to deliberately suppress the study of Black history.
Passed by the Florida legislature in 2022 and signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis, the law prohibits teachers from instructing students about race and racism if that instruction “compels an individual to believe specified concepts constitute discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin.” The law has had a chilling effect on Florida’s education system and beyond. Libraries through the state, including school media centers and classrooms, are forced to comply with the law by limiting access to books that are deemed inappropriate under the law.
While some Florida educators have removed their classroom libraries or limited students’ access to them, others have doubled down. Dr. Marvin Dunn is the president of the Miami Center for Racial Justice and a Professor Emeritus at Florida International University. As part of his work with the center, he leads the Teach the Truth tours for high school students in Miami-Dade County to the sites of some of the worst acts of anti-Black racism in the state.
Dunn’s tours continue even as Florida blocked a high school A.P. African American studies course until it was stripped of content on intersectionality, queer studies, Black Lives Matter and the modern abolitionist movement. And as former Florida Governor, and current U.S. Senator, Rick Scott, introduced a bill to create a national version of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education known commonly as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Both were passed in the 2022 legislative session.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Narrative Initiative: Your work centers around telling the stories of some of the racial atrocities that have happened in Florida, namely Rosewood and the Newberry Six. Why have you dedicated your life to making sure that these stories are passed down?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: Because unless people like me save these stories, they will die when we die. It is a very difficult story for people to hear. So, the the tendency to want to move away from them is very, very strong. So my concern is capturing the most difficult stories, memorializing them, and taking people to the bloody ground where they happened. Having the new generation, particularly of Black, young people come along, know the stories, walk the ground and have the feelings that will attach them to these stories and pass them forward as they grow older.
Narrative Initiative: How have students and others responded when you’ve taken to these sacred spaces, these hallowed grounds that are soaked with blood?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: I would say that students, in particular, have been awestruck and puzzled as to why they didn’t know these things before. Angry they were kept from them, saddened because this is a very brutal, sad history. They went to places where people died very violently. And to some degree, I think students have said, “I feel more enlightened. I know more about my history than I would have had.” A lot of it predictably is sad, but we debrief as we go along. I sit down with them to make sure everyone’s okay. No one has had such an experience where they were emotionally distraught and had to be given special attention. It’s difficult to hear, but they managed to hear it and learned, and I think all that’s for the better.
Narrative Initiative: In Florida, the Stop WOKE Act is supposed to make sure the lessons taught about race and history don’t make others feel guilty or oppressed. Have you come across that in any of your dealings with students or people who are confronting these atrocities and learning more about them?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: I was in classrooms. In fact, at one time I was a high school principal. I have never, in my 40 years of being an educator in Florida, heard a teacher tell a white student that you should feel guilty for what white people did 200 years ago. I have never seen that or heard that. And when I was a principal, if I had heard a teacher at my school tell a white student you should feel guilty, I’d have had that person out of my building that very day. So what we are experiencing is a lie. A big, big lie by this presidential wannabe [that is] being used to frighten white people into voting for him for president. And it’s despicable. But that’s what’s happening. It’s a lie. He’s making it up.
There’s no school in Florida where critical race theory is being taught, but that’s what we’re hearing from the governor. There’s no school in Florida where students are being told to feel bad. Where is that happening? He can’t point to one school where that’s going on. So instead of taking care of climate change, insurance prices and Florida’s housing being out of control, all we hear is CRT, CRT. And why is that? Because it is a whistle to his racist supporters that he is the defender of their faith.
It’s the same thing Stalin did, same thing Hitler did, same thing Castro did. Create a monster and then you rise up and be the one to slay it. That’s what this is all about. . . [And] it sure plays well, with certain folks in North Florida. In South Florida. Throw the words socialist at it and that dismisses that person or that idea. So this man has brought Florida to an educational crisis that threatens to destroy our academic system, certainly at the university level. If I were a young professor trying to decide where I wanted to go to teach, where I wanted to have my career, Florida would be the last state that I would choose.
Narrative Initiative: You were saying, when we first started talking, that it’s very difficult to make sure that these stories stay out there, not just because of what’s going on now with DeSantis and his agenda to become president, but because of how difficult they are. There’s always been that tension that some white people don’t want these stories told for one reason or another. With that sentiment politicized as it has in Florida, and possibly nationwide, what is the detriment to children?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: The first detriment to children is that they’re going to grow up educationally crippled, because if DeSantis has his way – and he does have his way – school children in Florida will be denied African American history. Oh, they’ll learn about Booker T. Washington, and they’ll learn about George Washington Carver, and that damn peanut. But they will not learn about Malcolm X. They will not learn about the black heroes. They will not learn about the Black Seminoles. They will not learn about Harry T. Moore who died in 1951 when the Klan bombed his house because he was a civil rights worker. They won’t hear those things. So how would they be able to sit in a classroom with students from other states who have had a broad and sufficient education in African American history and they know nothing except Booker T. Washington? They will be crippled and they will and should be angry.
Narrative Initiative: So I live in Jacksonville, two of the books that our county, Duval County, has withheld from even being vetted for classroom use . . . One of them was about Rosa Parks and the other is called Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop, about the Black sanitation workers strike right before Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. Those have been essentially banned. And right now students across the country learn a very sanitized version, a whitewashed version of who Martin Luther King Jr., was and who Rosa Parks was and what they did and what they stood for. We trot out the same black heroes every Black History Month, and expect students to know history. Now history is being denied them. How does this play into the narrative of who the United States purports itself to be on the world stage when we won’t even address the skeletons in our own closets?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: It shows us as a hypocritical society. If we don’t recognize the wrongs that we did, as a country, to Black people, to Native Americans, to Japanese Americans. If we don’t unbury those stories and have people understand why they happened and why they must never happen again. Then you have the same risk of these things happening again and again.
Look at what’s going on right now with the way immigrants are being shown as an invading horde. All of this plays into the politics of the moment that Governor DeSantis has seized upon as a way to get to the White House. Somehow every time we come around to a presidential cycle race becomes an issue and now with this man, he has brought this issue which is absolutely detrimental to the country to this day as his foremost platform to become President at the same time ignoring the real crisis that we have here in Florida.
Narrative Initiative: So the latest attack has been the rejection of AP African American Studies from a high school curriculum. DeSantis was actually in Jacksonville earlier this week and said that the reason it was rejected is not because of the history, but because of some of the coursework that would have talked about queer history in African American studies as well as what’s been known as the abolitionist movement to eradicate the prison industrial complex. It was interesting to me. If those were the reasons to reject the curriculum, then we lose a whole set of people who had great contributions to African American history. I’m thinking of Bayard Rustin, who was a gay man but was very much a pioneer of civil rights history.
Dr. Marvin Dunn: James Baldwin.
Narrative Initiative: Exactly. So, why do you think it’s these fights that are making Black history seem as if it’s so difficult to be taught?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: I am so glad you raised that quick question because that’s being used as a revelation [or dog whistle].
“They’re grooming your children to become queer. So parents, go to those schools and make sure that your children aren’t being exposed to this queer stuff.”
You know, if I had written the plan for this course, in African American history, I would have put queer studies into it myself. I may or may not have chosen that title, but I would have chosen the subject to be relevant because, if you are a Black person and you’re gay, you are at risk in the Black community. Anti-gay feelings, anti-homosexual feelings are stronger in the Black community than in any other community. And if that’s the case, then why shouldn’t we explore why that is? And how people who are gay need to be protected from that kind of double bind, being Black and being gay in society. So maybe “queer” was not the right word, but the subject matter, the issues are appropriate in African American history because we mistreat gay people in our community more so than anybody else. But what DeSantis is doing is bastardizing that [history], he’s perverting that and scaring people [into believe] that the [left-wing liberal] mob is grooming your children to become queer. It’s just despicable way of trying to become president. He knows better.
Narrative Initiative: He should, considering that one of his first acts as governor in his first term was to pardon the Groveland Four. Many people forget about that.
Dr. Marvin Dunn: May I just make a point about that? At one time DeSantis taught school in Florida and some of his former students have reported that DeSantis told them that abortion was wrong. They reported that DeSantis told them that the Confederates had a point, that they lost property. Well, whose agenda was he pushing when he was teaching school and now as governor? He was the indoctrinator when he taught. Now, all of a sudden, no indoctrination in schools.
Narrative Initiative: Exactly. And then one of the other points that he mentioned when he spoke on Monday was that calling for an abolitionist movement against prisons and law enforcement is wrong and unpatriotic. However, there is a direct line from chattel slavery to what we now know as the prison industrial complex. How do you see what is being done to Black people and Black communities through the prison system as it relates to Black History overall and in general?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: If we had an equal amount of white, Black, Asian and Hispanic people in prison, then we shouldn’t even be discussing this. But if we have a very high number of Black people in prison, compared to other people, we need to study that. We need to determine what kinds of reforms need to happen in prison, so that we don’t have this unequal number of people in prison. So, it’s yet another attempt – in this AP course – to drill into an issue that may not be all that important to [some] people, but is to us [as Black people] because the prison system in our country is destroying Black families by having so many young Black men, in particular, arrested on charges that never should end up with anyone going to prison.
Every time the prison system snatches a young man who may have been arrested for the first or second time for some marijuana and he goes to prison, his life is ruined. His life is ruined! He’s not going into the military. He’s not going to get a job in a lot of places because he’s got the prison sentence, so that person is ruined. The American prison system is, in a sense, a replacement of the slavery system, because you end up with an institution that terribly penalizes Blacks much more so than it does others. And we need to look at the reasons why that is and change it.
Narrative Initiative: So you have your website where you’re telling the history of Florida through Black eyes. You have several books. What is it that you hope people will get from your work as you continue teaching?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: I hope they’ll get mad. I hope they’ll get active. I hope they’ll get prayerful and hope they will become more human and reach out to others that they may have seen as being problematic to them. I don’t expect people to sit and read about the lynching in Florida of Willie James Howard, a 15-year-old Black boy in Live Oak in 1944 for writing a love letter to someone. I expect people to be upset about these things. But the attempt to sterilize history, to deracialize history, simply minimizes history and leaves — at least those of us who are African American in Florida, and possibly in this country – out in the cold.
Narrative Initiative: How old are you Dr. Dunn, If you don’t mind my asking?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: I don’t mind you asking. I’m 82.
Narrative Initiative: So you have lived a lot of life and you have seen a lot of changes over the course of history. How do you see what’s happening now in America, as compared to what happened in the past? What do you think will continue for our future?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: Well, one thing that that hasn’t changed a lot is there’s a segment of our community by population that is very highly racist, and actively racist, and they have always been with us and they probably always will be with us. But one thing that has changed has been the minimization of their impact on us as a society. These people who are Klansmen and neo-Nazis have been moved into the fringes of our society as we have moved along and gone through the changes that have brought positive things to Black people. But now we have creeping through from the right wing these same elements with these ideas that have been championed by DeSantis.
Narrative Initiative: Is there anything else that you would like to add about Florida, about what’s happening with critical race theory, AP African American studies, or history in general that I have not asked?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: Yes. I’m very concerned about this recent development that teachers can’t have books in their classrooms that have not been approved by a librarian. My book, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes would be banned in every school in Florida. There’s no librarian in Florida who would allow my book because I talk about institutional racism and reparation and slavery and lynching.
So these recent developments, the impact on libraries and schools and and the chilling effect on teachers, you can be charged with a third degree felony if you’re caught with a certain book in your school that has not been approved by a librarian. Where did this come from? It’s so Hitlerian. So Stalinistic. So un-American. But now we have teachers hiding books in the classrooms taking them home because they don’t want to be charged with a felony. America needs to wake up. This is coming to your state if DeSantis is successful in becoming president.
Narrative Initiative: What does it say that DeSantis, his administration, and those he’s appointed to these positions in the Department of Education are afraid for people to read?
Dr. Marvin Dunn: I think that they are afraid for people to read about the brutality of racism in America, about the extent of it, about the long term impact of it on lives after the acts were done. I think they don’t want people to read about the loss of, not just life, but wealth of property, of the right to vote. All of these things are difficult to confront for America but she must. She must. She must. She must! And I think eventually she will. But we got a period of fleshing out to do before we can become a great country.