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The Past as Prologue: What Florida’s Stop Woke Act Means to Me

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

It is effective political theater, the conservative Florida governor standing in front of microphones vowing to the Moms for Liberty that he will stop “woke indoctrination” and later, his signing into law an education censorship bill that bans the teaching of any instruction in Florida businesses and schools that might make some people feel that they bear any personal responsibility for America’s long history of racial discrimination. Other states are following in Florida’s path.

To me Governor Ron DeSantis’ latest dog whistle reinforces the adage, plus ça change. The more things change; the more things remain the same.

To me, Governor Ron DeSantis’ rhetoric “is giving” strong George Wallace-esque, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever vibes,” especially as Florida uses The Stop Woke Act as a battering ram to malign and block Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, and more recently, an AP African American Studies class that is being piloted in numerous U.S. high schools. 

I graduated high school in 1986 in a very small, very segregated city, LaGrange, Georgia. My high school curriculum and the teachers were decidedly not “woke.” Here is what that meant for me:

In tenth grade, although I was a voracious reader, I abhorred Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My class read the classic together over a number of weeks, grueling weeks in which I sat cringing in a class where I, one of only two students of color, had to listen as my classmates used the N-word to refer to Jim about 200 times. Twain’s literary intent might have been to satirize southern bigotry, but my sophomore teacher offered no historical context for the ubiquitous racism depicted in the novel. Decades later, Mark Twain’s novel evokes nausea and disgust.

In eleventh grade, my American history teacher gave an exam that required us to write two essays – one in support of slavery in America and one that took a stance against it. I wrote an essay against the institution and used the rest of the time to craft an essay about the impact of slavery on Black families like mine. The teacher graded down my exam by 50%.

In my senior year, we studied Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hawthorne, and a host of other American writers. I was hungry to study literature written by people who looked like me, to analyze books that spoke to my experience. In fact, for an important research project, I begged my teacher to approve my paper topic on Black authors. She told me that it would be better to choose another theme because I would never find enough material to conduct the detailed critical analyses that was necessary. No matter that in the 1980s, numerous universities had somehow found enough “material” to create an African American Studies major.

My teacher did have a point. My school library did not have the books that I needed. Pre-Internet, this meant that I had to conduct research at a public library. In LaGrange, Georgia throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were separate swimming pools, tennis courts, and libraries for whites and Blacks. White people, any white people, were admitted to use the afore-mentioned facilities as members of the Calloway Education Association. Blacks could only use “other” facilities. As a teen, not one single white “friend” ever had any qualms about accepting membership in and enjoying swimming, golfing, or studying at a facility that excluded me because of the color of my skin.

Can I interject here and add that there was no racism-free “spiritual paradise” within my Jehovah’s Witness associates? Yes, whites and Blacks intermingled at integrated Kingdom Halls for worship more than they did at the segregated churches in LaGrange, Georgia. But the white supremacy that had my hometown in a chokehold permeated freely in Kingdom Halls throughout the deep south. Jehovah’s Witnesses have a long history of whitewashing deep-seated problems to get soundbites and photo opps without actually addressing issues such as racism within their ranks. How else can it be explained that Witness leadership has chosen only one BIPOC Governing Body member in a century? Cultural tourism that encourages white Witnesses to visit with and take pictures of non-white Witnesses who are wearing native clothing at international assemblies make great Watchtower covers but mean little if no (or only one token) Africans, Asians, or Latinos are ever invited into rooms where sweeping decisions about the organization are made.

Kingdom Halls in my city were segregated until the mid-70s. I have distinct memories of my dad’s invitations to speak in white Halls and the myriads of micro aggressions that were discussed in the car rides home before and after the congregation integrated: the Watchtower conductor who only called on white people to comment; the white woman who thought my mom’s dress was a bit too nice for her to own and who actually reached under my mom’s dress collar to pull the label out and read it aloud; the speaker who denounced Blacks as nasty from the platform because we did not wash our hair as often as whites did. More profoundly, as a teen, imagine spending a summer day with a carload of white Witness peers knocking on doors of people who did not want you there to peddle “truths” that I struggled to defend. Afterward, the white “friends” would proclaim that they needed to cool off at the pool, but first they'd drop me off at home because Blacks were not allowed into the Calloway facilities. Not one Witness in my hometown ever told me that they relinquished membership in this segregated organization in solidarity with their Black brothers and sisters. In fact, if you wanted to know their true feeling on racial unity – you need only to note their reactions to interracial dating within the organization.

Note that I do not believe that my Witness associates were more racist than any of my “worldly” peers. But Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t less racist either. Witnesses were susceptible to the white supremacy that was pervasive in our environment. And in that environment, both my classmates and my congregants piled on the micro aggressions, and the adults were also complicit. For instance, the guy that my high school bestie was dating chose as his Halloween costume one of his relatives’ Confederate uniform. He wore that outfit proudly for an entire day and it was admired in the school canteen. I ate lunch alone that day.

In 1986 when the national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was first celebrated, a television network commemorated the event by airing a 1970s miniseries about Dr. King’s life. I remember primarily because a classmate named Kristi hummed the theme song for the miniseries loudly whenever I walked into the math class that we shared. Every day. My classmates and the teacher found it hilarious. I did not.

The true cost of Florida’s embrace of historical whitewashing and revisionism, however, is much more insidious than this middle-aged woman’s adolescent memories. In his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, the late historian, James Loewen discusses the impact of utilizing textbooks that opt for ethnocentric cheerleading instead of comparative history.

“When textbooks make racism invisible in American history, they obstruct our already poor ability to see it in the present. The closest that they come to analysis is to present a vague feeling of optimism: in race relations, as in everything, our society is constantly getting better. We used to have slavery; now we don’t. We used to have lynching; now we don’t…The notion of progress suffuses textbook treatment of black-white relations, implying that race relations have somehow steadily improved on their own. This cheery optimism only compounds the problem because whites can infer that racism is over.”

Studying the institution of slavery in America and the state-sanctioned apartheid that followed will and should be uncomfortable. History is complicated and context is crucial. When diverse perspectives and critical analysis are deliberately excised from a curriculum, skewed facts are accepted without question. Eurocentrism remains the default. Ignorance, bigotry, and bias blooms. This is true in international religious organizations, in school districts, and in small communities.

For my kids and yours, we need to do better.

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