Black history class revised in US after criticism from right

The revised course for high-school students rolls back references to racial justice movements and LGBTQ issues.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at an event
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican contender in the 2024 presidential election, has denounced the new college-level African American studies course for high school students [File: Joe Skipper/Reuters]

The official curriculum for a new high school course on African American studies downplays some components that drew criticism from conservatives in the United States, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had threatened to ban the class in his state.

In the new framework released on Wednesday, topics including the Black Lives Matter movement and queer life are not part of the exam. They are included only on a list of sample project topics that states and school systems can choose from for assignments.

The course — which would join a stable of 38 undergraduate university-level classes the Advanced Placement (AP) programme offers to high-school students — is currently being tested at 60 schools around the US. The official materials are intended to guide its expansion to hundreds of additional high schools in the next academic year.

The College Board, which oversees the AP programme, said the course’s developers consulted with professors from more than 200 colleges, including several historically Black institutions.

The rejection of the course by DeSantis, a Republican, has stirred new political debate over how schools teach about race.

In January, his state issued a chart that said the course promotes the idea that modern US society oppresses Black people, other minorities and women. The chart also highlighted the inclusion of a chapter on “Black Queer Studies” and articles by critics of capitalism that the DeSantis administration found inappropriate.

The Florida Department of Education told the College Board it would bar the course unless changes were made.

DeSantis, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2024, said he was blocking the course in Florida because it pushes a political agenda.

“In the state of Florida, our education standards not only don’t prevent, but they require teaching Black history, all the important things,” DeSantis said at a news conference last week. “That’s part of our core curriculum. We want education and not indoctrination.”

In a written statement released on Wednesday, College Board CEO David Coleman said the course is “an unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence of African American history and culture”.

“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 movements; and people of faith from all backgrounds who contributed to the antislavery and Civil Rights causes. Everyone is seen,” he said.

Among the schools piloting the new course is Baton Rouge Magnet High School in Louisiana. So many students were interested in the course there that teacher Emmitt Glynn is offering it in two classes, instead of just the one he was originally planning.

This week, his students read selections of “The Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon, which deals with the violence inherent in colonial societies. In a lively discussion, students connected the text to what they had learned about the conflict between colonisers and Native Americans, as well as the war in Ukraine and police violence in Memphis, Tennessee.

“We’ve been covering the gamut, from the shores of Africa to where we are now in the 1930s, and we will continue on through history,” Glynn said. He said he was proud to see the connections his students were making between the past and present.

For Malina Ouyang, 17, taking the class helped fill gaps in what she has been taught. “Taking this class,” she said, “I realized how much is not said in other classes.”

Matthew Evans, 16, said the class has educated him on a multitude of perspectives on Black history. He said the political controversy is just “a distraction”.

“Any time you want to try to silence something, you will only make someone want to learn about it even more,” he said.

The College Board offers AP courses across the academic spectrum, including math, science, social studies, foreign languages and fine arts. The courses are optional. They are taught at a college level, and students who score high enough on the final exam usually earn course credit at a university.

The African American studies course is divided into four units: origins of the African diaspora; freedom, enslavement and resistance; the practise of freedom; and movements and debates.

In Malcolm Reed’s classroom at St Amant High School in Louisiana, where he teaches the AP class, he tries to be mindful of how the material and discussions can affect students.

“I give them the information, and I’ve seen light bulbs go off,” he said. “I ask them, ‘How does it affect you? How do you feel about learning this?’ It’s also new for me, and I’m just taking it in stride. We’re not just learning history, but we’re making history.”

Source: AP