New African American studies course sparks controversy in US

College Board promises essential new student exposure to black history, while battling accusations it allowed key politically motivated omissions

February 2, 2023
New York City, NYS, USA, 1951. Afro-American teenagers in front of a shop window in Harlem. They look at the offers of a fashion store.
Source: iStock

The College Board has announced its new Advanced Placement (AP) course in African American studies, promising to give students groundbreaking exposure to the US’ black history but encountering complaints that it allowed some major politically motivated omissions.

AP courses produced by the non-profit College Board are taken at high-school level and are widely accepted as college-level credits. The new addition will be “an unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence of African American history and culture”, said the board’s chief executive, David Coleman.

“No one is excluded from this course: the black artists and inventors whose achievements have come to light; the black women and men, including gay Americans, who played pivotal roles in the civil rights movement; and people of faith from all backgrounds who contributed to the anti-slavery and civil rights causes,” Mr Coleman said after a year-long development process that involved more than 300 African American studies professors from more than 200 US colleges and universities. “Everyone is seen.”

Yet critics immediately noted several leading authors and themes they saw as omitted or substantially trimmed from initial versions of the planned course. Such authors included Ta-Nehisi Coates of Howard University, Kimberlé Crenshaw of Columbia University, Roderick Ferguson of Yale University, and the late bell hooks; and the themes included the role of gay Americans in US civil rights movements and the notion of intersectionality – the combining of society’s forces of inequality.

One leading protest came from a group of more than 200 African American studies faculty from across the US who accused the College Board of relenting under pressure from the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, whose administration had told the College Board that an earlier iteration of its new AP course in African American studies would violate the state’s attempts to restrict the teaching of concepts of racial equality.

“We object to the offensive manner in which the governor has yoked his efforts to extinguish the curriculum to a sprawling, multi-state effort to wield the power of the administrative state as a sword in these new culture wars,” the protesting faculty wrote in a posting on Medium.

The College Board pushed back, issuing a second statement, after its initial announcement of the course, citing instances where critics misstated the extent of the revisions to its draft and suggesting that the complaints from Mr DeSantis had little or no effect on the situation.

The board also said that it learned, from its consultations with the academic professionals who advised it, of the need to make the course material less dense, to connect students more directly with primary sources, and to look more directly at human experiences. The board did not, however, explain how those priorities led to the specific cuts it made in authors and themes.

The new AP course in African American studies is being tested this year in 60 US high schools, with plans for that to grow to hundreds this year, and then be offered nationwide in 2024. Its components include units on the origins of the African diaspora; slavery and resistance; post-Civil War Reconstruction and black internationalism; and the civil rights movement. The course also calls for students to spend at least three to four weeks on a project ending with an essay of 1,200 to 1,500 words.

The College Board’s announcement of the course included endorsements from several leading scholars of African American studies, including Henry Louis Gates, the renowned professor of the humanities at Harvard University, who was quoted as saying that the curriculum “provides students with a firm foundation of facts and evidence about this extraordinarily rich saga of American history”.

Professor Gates told Times Higher Education that he didn’t get all he wanted in the new course. “I suggested to the College Board that they include a unit that focuses on the key theoretical debates in the tradition, which is how we structure our Introduction to African American studies course at Harvard,” he said. “But they don’t require secondary sources in their AP curricula, so there we are.”

While Mr DeSantis has been especially active and prominent in fighting attempts to teach US racial history in public education at all levels, Florida is only one among some two dozen US states that have tried to impose similar restrictions.

And even without Mr DeSantis, the College Board has faced ongoing criticism of its record on advancing societal equity. Its prominent standardised college admissions test, the SAT, has long been faulted as discriminatory in its types of questions and its cost of participation, and one of its top executives resigned last year over his past efforts to restrict classroom teaching about race and racism.

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