On February 1, the first day of Black History Month, the College Board unveiled its curriculum for a new Advanced Placement (AP) class in African American studies.
The course generated controversy prior to its release. Conservative politicians and pundits attacked its content based on a preliminary draft of the curriculum leaked last August to conservative publications, including the Florida Standard and National Review. The attacks on the course aimed to limit how the history of Black people in the United States can be taught and discussed. Subsequently, the College Board made substantial changes to the course prior to its final release. In response to the changes many academics, as well as liberal groups, journalists, and others then accused the board of succumbing to right-wing pressure.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis launched the most prominent attack last month — before the College Board released the final version — when he announced he would ban the course based on the pilot version. DeSantis is widely expected to run for the Republican nomination for President of the United States in 2024.
The Florida Department of Education then rejected the course, claiming it “lacks educational value and is contrary to Florida law.” Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr. subsequently revealed a list of the state government’s objections. Among them was opposition to the study of nation-wide protests that erupted in 2020 demanding justice for victims of cop brutality and racism after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
“In another red flag to the College Board, there was the possibility of other opposition,” reported an article in the February 1 New York Times. “More than two dozen states have adopted some sort of measure against critical race theory, according to a tracking project by the University of California, Los Angeles, law school.”
Critical race theory is primarily a course of study at the university level. “[I]t holds that race is a social — not a scientific — construct and offers a framework for understanding the role of systemic racism in the law and in legal institutions. It is taught, if at all, in law school — not high school,” as syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, who is African American, has accurately explained.
“When the College Board released the revised curriculum, all of the sections that Florida complained about had been removed,” noted an article in the February 3 New Yorker magazine. Titled “The Meaning of African American Studies” the article’s subhead asserted: “The discipline emerged from Black struggle. Now the College Board wants it to be taught with barely any mention of Black Lives Matter.”
Keeanga-Yamattha Taylor, the Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, wrote the article as a Q & A with Robin D.G. Kelly, a history professor at UCLA. Both have produced work that the College Board removed from the final version of the AP course.
Black rebellions of the 1960s
David Coleman, president of the College Board, told the media his organization made all final revisions to the AP class for pedagogical reasons, not to bow to political pressure.
Taylor and Kelly countered that such claims are hard to believe. “Indeed, there is barely any mention of the Black rebellions of the nineteen-sixties, which were the backdrop to the demands of Black students that Black studies be included in college and university curricula,” Taylor wrote.
Many high school student protests in the 1960s raised similar demands. A December 1968 issue of the Young Socialist magazine, titled “High Schools Explode,” featured an article that captures the tenor of the times:
“The one demand that has been put forward in almost every high school action is for Afro American history courses….
“The demand for Afro-American history is such a ‘reasonable’ one that it is hard for school administrators to put up a fight against it, and in many cases courses in Afro-American history are being instituted as a result of student struggles.
“But, no sooner are these courses set up than new struggles begin over the question of what should be taught in these courses and who should teach them….”From “High Schools Explode,” December 1968 issue of Young Socialist magazine
The entire issue of the magazine is accessible in this link.
Black history is integral to U.S. history
From its inception as a field of study, Black history has been conceived as an essential part of U.S. history. The origins of Black History month, celebrated each February, offer a confirmation of this. In a declaration by U.S. president Gerald Ford the U.S. government first officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 — following the rebellions and protests of the 1960s that continued into the next decade. Ford, a Republican, called on the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Like other advances in Black rights, Black History Month and African American studies are the result of the indomitable struggles by millions of Black Americans and their allies for genuine equality and against racism, not the outcome of the beneficence of any elected officials.
The real issues in the current debate are not those demagogically posed by DeSantis and others. Rather it is whether the struggle for Black equality and the innumerable achievements of African Americans, from the time of slavery up to and including the present, are legitimately a central part of any curriculum on U.S. history.
Different opinions will always exist about how to teach history; what books and other written material to use, how to interpret the facts in that material, etc. Many teachers using the identical curriculum will lead classes in varying ways. How students respond, including questions and opinions they raise, will also shape any given course of study.
Kelly and Taylor addressed this point in the New Yorker article. “Our job, as educators, is to open up all students to the world — which is the root of university, universitas,” said Kelly. “We can do that and still take a political perspective, because we are actual people, right? What I think would disqualify any teacher is to say, ‘You know what, we’re not going to touch that. That’s off limits.’ Unless it’s some made-up, useless piece of information. Generally, we teach in a way that opens up debate and discussion. We encourage disagreement, between us and our students or between students. We don’t necessarily reveal in our classes what our political stakes are. We choose readings that are across the board.”
Taylor replied, “I always tell my students, ‘I don’t need you to think like me, I need you to think for yourself. And I’m here to help you think critically about everything, and to ask a million questions and try to figure out how to answer them.’ It is the right that is actually saying, ‘Don’t read this book, don’t listen to this person, don’t have this conversation.’”
‘Think for ourselves’
This echoes an idea Malcolm X, one of the 20th century’s outstanding revolutionary leaders, explained in a January 1, 1965, discussion with a delegation of 37 young people from McComb, Mississippi. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized the group, which met with Malcolm at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem.
“One of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself. Then you can come to an intelligent decision for yourself. If you form the habit of going by what you hear others say about someone, or going by what others think about someone, instead of searching that thing out for yourself and seeing for yourself, you will be walking west when you think you’re going east, and you will be walking east when you think you’re going west. This generation, especially of our people, has a burden, more so than any other time in history. The most important thing that we can learn to do today is think for ourselves.”
From Malcolm X Speak
Last year, World-Outlook published a three-part series titled, “Critical Race Theory — What Are the Issues?” These articles go to the heart of the debate now under way on how to teach U.S. history. They explain that the right-wing campaign against critical race theory — similar in many ways to the recent conservative attacks on the College Board AP class — is aimed at preventing young people from studying the facts of history and allowing them to debate and discuss what they can learn from them.
The series also points out that some who defend critical race theory advance arguments that “lead in the wrong direction, both in understanding history and in finding the road forward to uproot racism once and for all,” as the lead article in the series concludes. “In so doing, they provide unnecessary cannon fodder to the right-wing campaign in the United States against teaching the facts of history.”
For these reasons we are providing, below, the links to these articles as a contribution to the current debate.
Critical Race Theory — What Are the Issues?
Part I: Right-Wing Campaign Tries to Prevent Teaching Facts of History
Part II: Liberal Distortions of History Aid Right-Wing Crusade
Part III: On Notions of ‘Embracing White Guilt’ & ‘Renouncing White Privilege’
 The College Board is a not-for-profit organization whose stated purpose is to facilitate access to higher education. It is a membership association made up of over 6,000 educational institutions. The board offers programs and services related to college readiness, including the Advanced Placement Program and SATs — entrance exams many colleges and universities use in making admission decisions.
 AP (advanced placement) is a program of classes developed by the College Board to give high school students an introduction to college-level classes and also gain college credit before graduating high school.
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Categories: Black Struggle, US History, US Politics
This is a thoughtful perspective with a tone that encourages an educational discussion of different views. As I understand it, you regard the questions raised by Critical Race Theory and the reframing effort offered by the 1619 Project as steps forward, even as there are (as usual) some factual mistakes, omissions, and the danger of misleading conclusions. The reference back to the 1968 YOUNG SOCIALIST is a nice reminder that there was a time when revolutionary socialist organizations could play a constructive role in building social movements for change, so long as their certainty about their own vanguard role and programmatic purity did not get out of control. (I felt some nostalgic pride in seeing my name listed in that issue as the YSA contact for Antioch College.) The writings by Novack and Camejo cited in the CRT series are useful to re-read, although much new research and fresh perspectives have appeared in the last 40-50 years. The articles you cite from THE NEW YORKER and ATLANTIC are stimulating, and another intervention is the ongoing exchange about “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now” (see the 2022 Verso book, and the defense of the Panthers in the Fall 2022 issue of Catalyst, “The Panthers CAN Save Us Now.”)