Beyond Plymouth Rock: Global trends in the study of slavery

The slide saying that “less than 4% of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was in Colonial America” at Florida’s 2022 Summer Civics Professional Development course could have been used in a lecture given by Damian A Pargas, professor of the history and culture of North America at Leiden University in the Netherlands and director of the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies in Middelburg in the Netherlands.

For him and the other scholars who study slavery and race, and are based outside the United States, the 4% figure (or 5% that historian Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University cites) demonstrates the need for their project: the study of slavery, enslavement, ‘unfreedom’, the European slave trade and race outside the US.

For Florida’s teacher trainers, the fact that 96% of the men, women and children forcibly taken from Africa were held in bondage outside the American colonies – for example, in Jamaica, Surinam (today’s Suriname), Brazil and Guadeloupe – leads to a startlingly different conclusion. Twelfth-grade government and economics teacher Tatiana Ahlbum told the Tampa Bay Times that the trainers wanted the teachers to think that since the vast majority of slaves were outside America, slavery in America was “less bad”.

Developed following the passage of the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act”, Florida’s curriculum is Critical Race Theory (CRT) free. In an attempt to halt the teaching of CRT in universities, Florida now requires its universities to survey students and professors on the political tenor of classes and declare their political beliefs.

Texas too outlawed teaching CRT in universities and will soon bring in legislation that defines the teaching of CRT as a cause allowing for the dismissal of tenured professors. Dozens of other states have outlawed teaching CRT in their schools, colleges and universities.

The long lead times in scholarly publication mean that it is not yet possible to determine the impact of these laws on books and articles. Given the peremptory nature of Texas’ proposed law, it is likely that professors will shy away from certain research projects, lest even a whiff of CRT negatively affects their tenure reviews.

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