Why Queen Charlotte Matters, Part 2
Reckoning Toward a New World
The United States will experience a demographic shift from majority white to majority people of color within the next 20 years. This threshold has never been crossed before, by any nation on earth. We would do well to learn from the prophetic imagination of Shonda Rhimes, writer and producer of the Netflix blockbuster, Queen Charlotte. Rhimes traces the fictional transition from white British rule to a fully integrated and more equitable kingdom. In Queen Charlotte’s Bridgerton, the choices leaders make weave order and beauty from the chaos of racialized hierarchies. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Supreme Court and in state legislatures across the country, the world’s oldest democracy is unravelling into chaos as white knuckles grab and twist the legal frameworks of constitutional law and state-based educational Standards to preserve and absolve white power.
In the month since I posted “Why Queen Charlotte Matters – Part One”, America’s Supreme Court has conjured the myth of colorblind governance from the dregs of 1980s conservative think-tank-o-rama. The conservative Supreme Court majority has effectively stripped the right of colleges and universities to consider race as one-among-many factors to figure into admissions decisions. With their ruling the Court has placed a formidable barrier in the path of qualified students of color who must compete against the weighted rankings of privileged legacy applicants.
As if on cue, last week presidential hopeful, Governor Ron DeSantis, approved the Florida Department of Education’s newly minted 2023 Academic Standards for the teaching of Social Studies. The Standards call for 6th through 8th graders to be taught: “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Let us be clear: People of African descent did not need the institution of slavery to learn how to build anything. We designed and built the pyramids in Ethiopia and Egypt. We designed the magnificent civilization of the Kingdom of Kongo. And we created the first libraries in the world in Timbuktu, Mali. We did not learn from slavery. Europeans stole skilled artisans, engineers and agriculturists from rich lands where they had put their skills to work for their own people’s benefit for millennia. American slavery forced these powerful humans to leverage their skills for the benefit of Europeans. Period.
In the same set of “Standards,” Kindergarten through 4th grade students will be taught only the positive contributions of African-Americans to society. Nowhere are the words slavery or enslavement mentioned—all the way through the 4th grade. Likewise, the people recommended to be highlighted in these nascent years are almost all heroes and sheroes of the 20th century. The biographies of Carter G. Woodson and Secretary of State Colin Powell are distant enough from the institution of slavery that no mention of it is required—none. Senator Hiram Revels, the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress (1870-1871), is also listed. But his mention can also evade mention of slavery, since he was born free in North Carolina. And it doesn’t hurt that he was a Republican.
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The first mention of slavery appears in Florida’s 5th grade curriculum. In the young person’s first encounter with the concept, they will hear their teachers call enslaved people of African descent, “slaves.” These women, men and children will not be called human beings. In Florida’s narrative, no one has acted upon them. They are simply and naturally “slaves”—like a dog is a dog, a cat is a cat, a bike is a bike, a slave is a slave. But, when the authors of Florida’s Standards mention free human beings of African descent for the first time, those humans are called “emancipated.” Someone has taken action to set “slaves” free. Freedom is not the African’s natural state. Nor did “slaves” have the power to emancipate themselves, according to this narrative. “Slaves” need emancipators. To be clear: At least 100,000 enslaved Africans escaped white shackles and emancipated themselves.
Worse still, Florida’s students will have to wait until 9th grade to learn the global history of slavery. And when they do, they will not learn the global reach of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which engaged most European countries in the economic boon brought by slaveocracy. Florida’s children will not be required to learn the timeline of slavocracy, from the first Portuguese slave ships that set sail in 1514 to the American ship, The Clotilda, which entered Mobile Bay, Alabama on June 9, 1860 holding 110 men, women and children from the Kingdoms of Dahomey and Ouidah (in present-day Benin). No. Florida’s 9th grade teachers will be required to teach that sub-Saharan Africa was the birthplace of the institution. And rather than trace the origins of the global Transatlantic slave trade, teachers will be required to deflect students’ attention from Europe’s sin. Rather, they will study slavery in Asia, the Middle East, between Indigenous nations in North America and even in Eastern Europe. The message? Everybody did it. Of course, there will be no required teaching on the unique brutality of American slavery—its racialized and inherited status, nor the uniquely American invention of slave farms—Yes, literal farms throughout the upper South that systematically “bred” enslaved people to be sold into the Deep South after the Transatlantic Slave Trade was outlawed.
But worst of all, the only mention of Europeans in connection to global slavery in the 9th through 12th grade Standards is the requirement to center the suffering of Europeans in the 16th century Barbary slave trade: “Instruction includes the practice of the Barbary Pirates in kidnapping Europeans and selling them into slavery in Muslim countries (i.e., Muslim slave markets in North Africa, West Africa, Swahili Coast, Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Indian Ocean slave trade).” This episode in European and Northern African history took place in the context of military conquest and had NOTHING to do with African-American history—the subject under which this module will be taught.
Florida’s Department of Education is weaving cherry-picked facts, to spin a meta-lie—a lie that will once again teach future generations that Europe and European descendants bear no responsibility for the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavocracy in the United States. In fact, they were victims of it. They are attempting to gain absolution through self-justification, not through confession and repentance.
In the final episode of Queen Charlotte, the young Queen stands toe to toe with her mother-in-law, the Dowager Princess Augusta. The Princess has spent her life securing the throne for her mentally ill son, George. Perceiving vulnerability as Queen Charlotte’s influence over George grows, the Princess spills the bare bones truth, as she sees it: “From the moment a king is born, there is no hiding for him. There is no room for illness or weakness. There is only power.”
Through the voice of Princess Augusta, Shonda Rhimes decodes the riddle of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling and DeSantis’s war on being awake. This is about power; who has it and who will keep it. Power is the reason the U.S. Congress still has not approved a Truth Commission on the treatment of African-Americans in this nation. Power is the reason the U.S. Congress offered reparations to slave holders after the Civil War, but still refuses to offer reparations to the enslaved or the lynched or the mutilated or the mass incarcerated or the exploited or the removed or the red-lined or to any of their descendants.
In the King’s English Rhimes spells it out: The opposite of power is not defeat, it is vulnerability. To secure and maintain power, as conceived in the Western world, since the days of Aristotle’s hierarchies of human belonging, vulnerability must die. To be weak enough to be conquered is to prove oneself created to be enslaved, according to Aristotle. So, one must not be weak or ill. One must not be human. One must not reckon with one’s sin. One cannot face what one has done to one’s fellow human beings. To admit such a breech would be to admit that one was, in fact, mere flesh and fallible. No. To secure and maintain power, one must be a little-g “god”—invulnerable, infallible, and at war with God.
The Bible teaches us God is God. We are not. To strive to be God is to war with God for supremacy. (Genesis 1:26)
The Bible teaches us we are all dust and to dust we shall return. (Genesis 3:19)
The Bible teaches us to “do justice,” to “love kindness,” and to “walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)
The Bible teaches us that truth matters. (Exodus 20:16, 2 Samuel 12:1-15, Acts 5:1-11, Romans 1:29, Ephesians 5:9)
And The Bible teaches us that the way to flourishing is through vulnerability—not power. (2 Chronicles 7:14, Luke 1:50-53, Philippians 2:1-11, Revelation 22:1-2)
In a moment of wonder toward the end of episode 2 of Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte, Lady and Lord Danbury exit their carriage at the entrance of their newly granted estate. Lord Danbury can barely believe he is living this moment that he thought would never come: The palace has granted a new estate, lush land, spots at Eton College for their children and cattle for continued prosperity. One might say, the palace had repented.
“The King sees me for who I am—my value, my worth,” says Lord Danbury. “He understands that … the old days are over. And that this is a new world—that men are men regardless from whence they come.”
If lies are allowed to live, then the dream of American flourishing will die. We must reckon with the whole truth of our history and our present-day warfare against the image of God. We must establish a United States Truth Commission on slavery and the ongoing oppression of African-Americans. If we desire peace, then we must repair what has been broken. Only then can the new world come.
President and founder of FreedomRoad.us, Lisa Sharon Harper is a writer, podcaster and public theologian. Lisa is author of critically acclaimed book, Fortune: How Race Broke My Family And The World—And How To Repair It All.