The College Board released the framework earlier this month for its new Advanced Placement course, African American Studies, which is currently being piloted in 60 high schools around the U.S.
This version looks different than a previous leaked draft, which included the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality and is a leading scholar on critical race theory, and feminist author bell hooks. Other secondary sources related to the Black Lives Matter movement and reparations were also removed from the core framework.
In January, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis criticized the course’s teachings, calling it “indoctrination,” and announced plans to ban it from high schools in the state if the College Board didn’t modify the curriculum. The official framework was released Feb. 1.
More than 300 professors of African American studies, along with high school teachers across the country, were consulted throughout the development of the course framework.
Under the current version, some of the themes that received pushback are now listed as sample project topics for students.
The framework changes drew widespread criticism, with some claiming they stemmed from political pressures. Teresa Reed, dean of the School of Music at the University of Louisville and a member of the development committee emphasizes that what was leaked to the press was just one of several drafts. “If you look at the official framework, it is the bare bones or the skeleton of the course. And it only lists primary sources. That’s by design. For secondary sources, you’ve got to get copyright permission,” Reed says.
Students will be able to access secondary sources through a digital platform known as AP Classroom, which is still under development, she explains.
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This fall, the AP African American Studies course will be piloted at hundreds of other high schools before it is widely offered in fall 2024. Here’s what the most recent version will include.
What Topics Will AP African American Studies Cover?
The College Board describes the new course as “an interdisciplinary course that draws from a variety of fields – history, literature, the arts, geography, science – to explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans.”
The course framework is broken down into four units: Origins of the African Diaspora; Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance; the Practice of Freedom; and Movements and Debates.
Unit One: Origins of the African Diaspora
Students spend the first five weeks of the course studying African kingdoms and empires, and what life was like on the continent of Africa prior to interactions with non-African nations through cultural texts, maps and paintings.
“How did some trade experiences that started off maybe without the intent of enslavement end up progressing towards that over time?” says Robert J. Patterson, professor of African American studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and co-chair of the committee of professors and teachers who developed the AP course. “Part of what students want to get a sense of is what life was like – in what ways it was thriving and what about Africa made it perhaps of interest to outside places.”
Unit Two: Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance
Over eight weeks, the course covers the transatlantic slave trade, resistance and the struggle for freedom after the Civil War. Students use poetry, paintings, speeches, literature and documents to learn about the Middle Passage, the Underground Railroad and Juneteenth, among other historical events.
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Unit Three: Practice of Freedom
The third unit spends five weeks discussing topics related to reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, Black women’s rights and leadership, the founding of historically Black colleges and universities, the Harlem Renaissance and social change through media.
“On the one hand, post-slavery, Black people had made progress,” Patterson says. “But in light of emancipation, there were obstacles that the United States instituted that made this progress short-lived.”
Unit Four: Movements and Debates
The fourth and final unit – which sparked pushback from some right-wing politicians – focuses on anticolonial movements, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, religious diversity, arts and music, among other topics.
In addition to instruction, students spend at least 15 class hours working on their course research project. The project should have a word count of 1,200 to 1,500 words, with at least four sources – two of which need to be secondary sources.
“When we did this in pilot one, we had one idea for the project,” says Antoinette Dempsey-Waters, a history teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia and a member of the development committee. “But then getting feedback, we understood that kids want to research. They have their own ideas and they want to do deep dives.
So students can choose their own project topics, even areas that are not part of the required course. The framework document offers sample project topics, including Black Lives Matter; gay life and expression in Black communities; mass incarceration; reparations debates in the U.S.; and intersectionality and the dimensions of Black experiences.
“As long as they can demonstrate the skill of argumentation in doing that, nothing is prohibited,” Reed says. “Nothing is off the table.”
How Will Students Be Assessed?
At the end of the course, students are assessed on their knowledge through a two and a half-hour AP exam, which includes 60 multiple-choice questions and four free-response questions. Students also submit their course project for grading.
The exam score and the project score are then combined to create an overall AP score between 1 and 5. A higher score can lead to college credit.
Challenges of Creating AP African American Studies
Given its interdisciplinary nature, it was a difficult course to design, experts say.
“It can’t be a history course because we know that history also influences art,” Dempsey-Waters says. So “we go into what was going on in that time period, but then also talk about the art of that time period … It’s kind of this new crosswalk that we were trying to put together and there was no blueprint for it.”
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While developing the course, there was a lot of discussion surrounding its title, Patterson says, given the differences in program and course names among colleges – such as Black Studies, African Diaspora Studies, Africana Studies or African American Studies.
It was also difficult to narrow down the topics covered in the course.
“There is a feeling that sometimes this might be the only (African American studies) course that students have taken or will ever take, so there is a desire to include as much as possible,” Patterson says. “When in reality, it’s just not practical. Part of what the hope is, is that it would spark students’ interest to take further independent study and/or go to college to study it more. And quite frankly, to reconstitute what the demographics of AP courses are.”
Why Should Students Consider Taking This AP Course?
Using a range of interdisciplinary lenses and historical texts, this course “helps people to understand how the historical and contemporary experiences of Black people in the United States, in a diaspora, are informed by larger political, social and cultural forces that did not end when slavery ended,” Patterson says.
He adds that the course “does what American education currently more generally doesn’t do. And that is to weave in the African American story, experience, history, etc., as central to the American experience.”
Reed recalls that much of what she learned about African Americans in school started with slavery.
“Think about what that does to your concept of self to have been taught that your beginning was in slavery, which was not true. … So students will get to learn about where they come from before the stain of slavery defined the place of African Americans,” she says. “And even despite slavery, there are so many contributions scientifically, artistically, socially and culturally that African Americans have as a part of being in this American story that have been unsung.”
John K. Thornton, a professor of history and African American studies at Boston University who helped review the proposed course, hopes to see this class offered more widely than other AP classes.
“The topics addressed are important for students to know about,” he wrote in an email. “They should realize that slavery was very important in American history and that enslaved workers were critical to the American economy. … They should be aware that African Americans often did not get benefits (such as WPA in the Depression) that others got, for no other than racial reasons. But they should also see that Americans have made great progress in race relations and in equalizing opportunity for all people, since then and that the descendants of those who supported slavery and its aftermath are not responsible for the acts of their ancestors, but are responsible for what they do now.”