The new AP African American Studies course has been consumed by politics. But what's actually being taught?
Recent controversy surrounding the College Board’s new Advanced Placement course on African American Studies has overshadowed its curriculum unveiling, with politicians, parents, students and leaders in academia conflicted by its content and relevance for students.
The College Board — a nonprofit organization that provides students with resources to ensure college readiness — announced on Feb. 1 the framework for its first AP course on African American studies. Its officials said the development committee consulted with professors from more than 200 colleges, including historically Black institutions. Teachers from schools testing the curriculum provided input as well.
“The fact of the matter is that this landmark course has been shaped over years by the most eminent scholars in the field, not political influence,” the College Board said in a statement to the Associated Press.
About a week before the College Board’s announcement, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state’s education department rejected the course’s teachings, calling it “indoctrination.” The state also announced plans to ban it from Florida high schools if the College Board didn’t make revisions to its curriculum, like dropping a chapter on “Black queer studies.”
In response, the College Board, which relies on state participation to execute its exams, called DeSantis’s and the Florida Department of Education’s criticism of African American studies “slander” and reiterated the course’s legitimacy and accuracy.
On the first day of Black History Month, the College Board did, however, release a revised version of the curriculum, with certain units removed from the pilot course, including Black queer studies, Black feminist literary thought and Black Lives Matter. Notably, “Black conservatism” is now listed as an idea for a research project.
Below is what the revised course now covers, and a look at how the fallout after Florida threatened to ban the course, as well as “mistakes” the College Board said it made during the course rollout, has consumed its implementation.
What will be taught in the African American Studies course?
The African American Studies course is offered under the AP Program, which allows high school students a chance to earn college credit and/or advanced placement as they pursue college-level studies. But no school or state is required to offer the specific course, which is currently being piloted in about 60 high schools nationwide. The College Board also emphasized that enrollment is a choice for parents and students.
The College Board added that AP courses are an “unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence” and facilitate an “open-minded approach to the histories and cultures of different peoples.” AP programs are guided by seven principles, including opposing indoctrination and censorship, developing independent thinkers and standing for “clarity and transparency.”
The course “reflects what African American studies professors, researchers, and teachers agree an introductory, college-level course in this field should teach students to do in order to qualify them for college credit and placement.”
The 234-page document lays out the course framework, which is split into four units: Origins of the African Diaspora; Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance; the Practice of Freedom; and Movements and Debates.
Origins of the African Diaspora. The first unit defines African American studies and focuses on early Africa and the transatlantic slave trade, with required literature from Black poet Claude McKay and required viewing of images and a video of a performance by a griot, an African storyteller. The areas of focus center around the “strength and complexity” of early Africa’s societies, its empires, kingdoms and city-states, as well as its global politics.
Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance. This section dives into the journey of Africans to the Americas and their enslavement. The unit highlights the transatlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage, slavery, labor and U.S. law, the culture and community during slavery, the resistance and revolts among enslaved people in America, and abolition and the Civil War. Students would be required to read different states’ slave codes, the U.S. Constitution, view Juneteenth celebrations and the singing of African American spirituals, as well as read works from Black literaries like Frederick Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Phillis Wheatley, the first African American author of a published book of poetry.
The Practice of Freedom. This unit gives students insight into the Reconstruction period, an era after the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow laws, white supremacy, racial uplift, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration and the establishment of historically Black colleges and Black organizations. Required sources include “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” an American hymn that’s commonly referred to as the Black national anthem, examining the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson, photographs of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and writing from Black literaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Movements and Debates. Students learn about the anti-colonial movement, the civil rights movement, Black power, Black women’s movements, diversity within Black communities and Black culture, connection and Afrofuturism. Students are required to review videos of former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Colin Powell talking during a roundtable, and read the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program.
The students are expected to be taught how to “apply disciplinary knowledge to explain course concepts, patterns, and processes,” as well as “analyze and evaluate primary sources, including text, visual, and data sources from the disciplines that comprise African American studies” and also “write coherent and evidence-based arguments.”
Teachers will also give students exams and projects to test their knowledge of the four units taught. During the next academic year, it will be implemented at about 500 U.S. high schools before it is offered to any interested school.
What’s the controversy behind African American Studies?
In January, Florida officials announced that the AP course would be blocked, arguing that the class was in violation of state law.
DeSantis — a possible 2024 contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination — said the course does not comply with legislation called the Stop WOKE Act he signed in 2022. The act gives “businesses, employees, children and families tools to fight back against woke indoctrination,” and “will take on both corporate wokeness and Critical Race Theory.”
“That’s a political agenda,” DeSantis said during a news conference in January. “That’s the wrong side of the line for Florida standards. We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them when you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”
“Now who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids, and so when you look to see they have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons, that’s a political agenda. And so, that’s the wrong side of the line for Florida standards,” the governor continued.
Manny Diaz Jr., the commissioner of education for Florida, slammed the curriculum, saying that while the department requires the teaching of African American history, “we do not accept woke indoctrination masquerading as education.”
The state has provided a chart of concerns, mostly including topics found in the Movements and Debates unit, such as intersectionality and activism, the Movement for Black Lives, Black queer studies, Black feminist literary thought and the Reparations movement. The chart also noted that intersectionality was “foundational” to critical race theory, a buzzy topic for many conservatives like DeSantis who have vowed to ban the teaching of the concept. Officials also called out required readings from Black writers like bell hooks and Kimberlé Crenshaw, who discuss intersectionality and white supremacy.
How has the College Board reacted to the controversy?
The College Board responded to the state of Florida, which touted that the organization updated its course after its recommendations, as well as to critics who slammed the College Board for caving to political pressure.
In a Feb. 11 statement, the College Board said it regretted not “immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education’s slander,” but also admitting to “mistakes in the rollout that are being exploited.”
“Our failure to raise our voice betrayed Black scholars everywhere and those who have long toiled to build this remarkable field,” the statement read. “Contemporary events like the Black Lives Matter movement, reparations, and mass incarceration were optional topics in the pilot course,” the statement read. “Our lack of clarity allowed the narrative to arise that political forces had ‘downgraded’ the role of these contemporary movements and debates in the AP class,” it continued.
During an event at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to celebrate the unveiling of the AP course, David Coleman, the CEO of the College Board, also tried to dispel doubts about trying to appease critics of the new course, telling guests that the changes were not driven by political pressure.
The College Board also pushed back in a direct response on Feb. 8 to the Florida Department of Education.
“As is always the case in AP, our selection of topics for this course has been guided by feedback from educators, disciplinary experts, and principles that have long shaped AP courses. Your letter claims that we removed 19 topics that were present in the pilot framework at the behest of FDOE. This is inaccurate,” the College Board wrote.
“We need to clarify that no topics were removed because they lacked educational value,” the letter added.
Yahoo News has reached out to the College Board for comment.
African American Studies advocates speak out against DeSantis: ‘This is censorship’
A group of more than 800 African American studies faculty, administrators and advocates in higher education from dozens of colleges and universities wrote an open letter denouncing DeSantis’s criticism and defending the course.
“This is censorship and a frontal attack on academic freedom,” the letter read. “We categorically reject DeSantis’s autocratic claim to knowing what college-level material should be available in an AP African American Studies course.
“... He is suppressing learning in his state and limiting the freedom of Florida students to choose what they can learn. He is destroying core educational principles that should be sacrosanct to all leaders in a democratic society.”
In addition, three Florida high school students, with the help of civil rights attorney Ben Crump, were expected to file a lawsuit against DeSantis.
“By rejecting the African American history pilot program, Ron DeSantis has clearly demonstrated that he wants to dictate whose history does — and doesn’t — belong,” Democratic state Rep. Fentrice Driskell said during an announcement of the lawsuit in Florida’s state capital of Tallahassee.
As noted by the Associated Press, the course has been popular among students in schools where the curriculum is being tested. For instance, there were enough interested students at Baton Rouge Magnet High School that history teacher Emmitt Glynn has doubled his workload, teaching it to two classes instead of just the originally planned one class.
Civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton also led a march to the Florida Capitol on Wednesday in protest of DeSantis’s ban.
“You’re going to tell the whole story,” Sharpton said, directly addressing Florida’s government. “Our children need to know the whole story. Not to only know how bad you were, but to know how strong they are. They come from people that fought from the back of the bus to the front of the White House. Tell the whole story.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, also announced Wednesday that he would expand the course in the state. The move would make way for African American studies to be taught in 26 state high schools during the next academic year.
“The expansion of AP African American Studies in New Jersey will grant our students the opportunity to learn about the innumerable ways in which Black Americans have shaped and strengthened our country,” Murphy said during a visit at a Newark high school.
“As governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis prioritize political culture wars ahead of academic success, New Jersey will proudly teach our kids that Black history is American history. While the DeSantis administration stated that AP African American Studies ‘significantly lacks educational value,’ New Jersey will stand on the side of teaching our full history,” he added.