The Furor Over AP African American Studies, Explained

Feb 1, 2023 1:40:04 PM


On Feb. 1, 2023,  the College Board released a revised framework for its Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course, which is currently being piloted in 60 schools across the U.S. In January, the course was targeted as lacking in “educational value” and banned in Florida by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The new framework eliminates, downplays, or makes optional some of the more controversial elements of the pilot course: intersectionality, Black feminist thought, Black LGBTQ culture, Black Lives Matter and the reparations debate. At the same time, it leaves intact the study of African civilizations before contact with Europeans, which is vastly understudied in K-12 schools. 

In a statement, the College Board said the new framework was finalized in December 2022, weeks before DeSantis moved to bar the course from Florida schools. However, the timing and nature of the changes has raised concerns that the College Board is caving to political pressure, not just from DeSantis, but from conservative pressure across the country

In late January, DeSantis’ press secretary Bryan Griffin said in a Tweet that the Florida Department of Education would review the revised framework “for compliance” with the state’s Stop WOKE Act,  which prohibits teaching “divisive concepts” about race.

The pilot AP course has become a flashpoint in the culture wars over curriculum and a focal point for debate over how Black history should be taught in U.S. schools. Yet the course has been in the works for more than a decade. Currently, the College Board plans to open the course to all interested high schools and offer the AP exam in African American studies in 2024-25.

The long journey to create an AP African American Studies course reflects both the political controversies over how to teach about race and history in K-12 schools and the reluctance of predominantly white colleges and universities to embrace non-Eurocentric approaches to the study of history, literature and culture. 

Students Never Get Black History without a Fight

The origin of African American studies stretches back at least to 1915.  That year, after the American Historical Association refused him entry to its conferences, Black historian Carter G. Woodson founded an organization now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. A year later, he launched a still-publishing journal dedicated to scholarship in Black history.

While African American studies then enjoyed scholars’ attention through these groups and at historically-Black colleges and universities, it took student protests in the 1960s and 70s to win the same attention from predominantly white institutions of higher education. In 1968, a multiracial coalition of students at San Francisco State University won the creation of the nation’s first official Black Studies Department.

Hundreds of colleges and universities followed suit, under similar pressure from their students. Soon, philanthropy got involved, hoping to steer the programs toward  a more incremental, integrationist approach to the topic. 

As chronicled in a 2006 book by historian Noliwe Brooks, many of their programs were first bankrolled by the Ford Foundation’s McGeorge Bundy, who had previously served as national security adviser to President John F. Kennedy. Bundy’s goal was to further racial integration on college campuses and prevent the programs from going into a militant, Black-separatist direction.

While the student protests of the late 1960s also forced a number of K-12 schools to launch courses in African American, Native American, Latinx and other ethnic studies, many students still go through high school graduation with limited or no exposure to this information. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a wave of state legislation spurred increased attention to Black history and ethnic studies of all kinds.

The recent calls from conservatives to “ban critical race theory” are pushing the political pendulum away from African American studies in many states and districts. As of February 2023, nearly 20 state legislatures are considering educational gag orders that prevent teachers from discussing race and other sensitive topics in the classroom. 

If the College Board Caved, It Wasn’t to DeSantis

The College Board has been developing its AP African American Studies course for more than 10 years. It has delayed the full rollout multiple times. It’s hard to parse when those delays were to refine the curriculum and when they were intended to allow political heat to cool off before proceeding.

Given how slowly the wheels of the College Board grind, there is no way the DeSantis announcement in January altered the timeline for the revised framework released today. Academics involved in the development of the course insist the latest set of changes were made based on their input through ongoing review, plus feedback from teachers and students now in the pilot. 

Robert Patterson, a professor of African American studies at Georgetown University who is among the scholars supporting the College Board’s work, told NBC, “The curriculum that is being released on Feb. 1 is in response to experts, the development committee, the teachers, the students. That is what that is in response to. It is not a response to the state of Florida.” 

But the political fireworks surrounding AP African American studies are likely to continue for some time. In late January, Florida high school students, supported by prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, threatened to file suit against DeSantis to overturn his ban on the course.

As reported by the Tallahassee Democrat, SAIL High School tenth-grader Elijah Edwards told supporters, “I have not learned much about the history or culture of my people outside of my parents and close relatives. After I heard there might be an African American Studies AP class, I was ecstatic.”

Whether he and thousands of other high school students, not just in Florida but across the country, get the chance to take the course remains an open question.

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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