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Colin Kaepernick, African art: AP African American studies reworked after controversy

The College Board reworked the recommended course material for its disputed Advanced Placement course in African American Studies, sharing an updated framework Wednesday that largely preserves the current topics and expands on others, and offers teachers options on subject matter that has drawn scrutiny from some conservatives.

The course, first offered as part of a pilot program to high school students during the 2022-23 school year, covers Black history through an interdisciplinary lens, touching on historical events and figures, as well as music, art, literature and culture. It took about a decade to fully formulate the coursework, according to the College Board, which worked with more than 200 educators at colleges, universities and other institutions across the country.

And while it's proven wildly popular − 60 schools offered the course in its first pilot year, and about 13,000 students in nearly 700 schools across 40 states are taking it in the second year, 2023-24 − the course also has been condemned by some on the right.

Florida education officials, saying the course "lacked educational value," rejected the class earlier this year. That decision drew a quick rebuke from Black leaders in Florida and elsewhere. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, campaigning for the Republican nomination for president, has targeted teaching about racism, saying in 2022, “We are not going to use your tax dollars to teach our kids to hate this country or to hate each other.” Arkansas said students can't earn credit for taking the course.

Some students involved have a different view.

"So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive," said Brandi Waters, senior director of AP African American Studies at the College Board. Waters, a New Jersey native who holds degrees from Yale, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania, said many students have called the course "a transformative experience."

"It's been so meaningful to so many students, parents and educators," Waters told USA TODAY. "Students are really excited to learn things they hadn't learned before and something that resonates with their lives today."

Nyjah Watson works with Johnathan White on an assignment in the AP African American Studies course at Firestone CLC, a high school in Akron, Ohio, in October.
Nyjah Watson works with Johnathan White on an assignment in the AP African American Studies course at Firestone CLC, a high school in Akron, Ohio, in October.

Teachers have come out of retirement to teach AP African American Studies and administrators and coaches who don't normally work in classrooms have committed to teaching it, Waters added. The course has prompted conversations between parents and students, a dialogue she said many families have welcomed.

"People are telling us it's been deeply transformative and engaging."

What is in the AP African American History course?

The course, for which students can earn college credit starting this school year − depending on how they score on an end-of-year test − begins with a historical, cultural and anthropological look at the African continent, touching on ancient civilizations, art, languages and geography. It examines the African diaspora, trade and Indigenous religions and spirituality, as well.

The second unit deals with the TransAtlantic slave trade, including maps of the trade routes, forced migration, slave auctions and the horrific journey that captured and enslaved people endured while being transported aboard cargo ships. Another section examines resistance aboard slave ships and anti-slavery movements.

The unit also looks at the economics of slavery and the slave trade, but also rebellions, the creation of African American culture and identity, and enslaved people in Brazil, Haiti and among Native Americans and other Indigenous communities.

Even after a half-century, the fight for African American studies in schools isn't getting easier.

A unit on the Civil War, emancipation and Reconstruction includes an expanded look at Black family reunification and the Freedmen's Bureau. It examines how Reconstruction-era advancements were rolled back, the early rise of white supremacy movements in the United States and the rise of Jim Crow. New materials include additional sources dealing with Black fraternal organizations, the creation of historically black colleges or universities, or HBCUs, and the early influence of music, film and art on Black identity.

The "Movement and Debates" unit has a new section on anticolonialism and rising Black political movements, as well as a section on the role of African Americans in World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen and the GI Bill. It also examines institutional and systemic racism, including redlining in cities like Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey; school segregation; and housing discrimination. The Civil Rights movement is examined through the lens of leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and Malcolm X, but also Elijah Muhammad, Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou.

The Black Panthers, Black feminists and the burgeoning Black middle class are among the topics examined in this section. There is also an expanded section on evolving Black music, with a look at the blues, R&B, hip hop and break dancing. Other expanded sections examine how Black people are portrayed in modern television and films; Black people in sports; and Afrofuturism.

What about Black Lives Matter and other hot-button issues?

At the end of the coursework, which is expected to be completed over at least 122 class periods, teachers have a week for "further explorations."

Teachers can choose among the following topics: Contemporary Grassroots Organizing (which includes the Black Lives Matter movement); The Reparations Debate; Incarceration and Abolition; Black Women Writers and Filmmakers; African American Art; Black Foodways and Culinary Traditions; and Local History.

In one section, there's a reference to how former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem in 2016 in protest of police brutality.

One of the course objectives is to have students "develop a broad understanding of the many strategies African American communities have employed to ... combat the effects of inequality and systemic marginalization locally and abroad."

"In terms of required content, we tried to focus on materials that we heard from colleges should be included in an introductory course," said the College Board's Waters. The materials went through multiple revisions and were compared with college professors' syllabi across the country to see what was being taught at that level.

"What's exciting about African American history is that so much of it is still evolving," Waters added. Historical assumptions are being challenged, and more attention is being paid to diverse perspectives. Students, parents and educators were also asked what they thought was missing from the course, prompting the additions of topics like local history and the role of Black journalists and African American newspapers in shaping culture, perceptions and policy.

Addressing the scrutiny from political figures and others, Holly Stepp, who handles media relations for the College Board, said that the organization makes the frameworks for all its AP courses, including this one, publicly available so that parents, educators and students can form their own opinions and decide for themselves whether to take the course.

Banned in Florida but popular elsewhere: Demand for AP African American Studies curriculum surges

Who's taking the course and why?

According to figures provided by the College Board, 45% of students who have taken AP African American History had not taken an AP course before. The board said 80% of students now enrolled reported being very likely or somewhat likely to continue pursuing African American studies, and 79% said they would consider enrolling in more AP courses and college-level courses after completing this course.

A large crowd gathered in the Florida Capitol fourth floor rotunda for the "Stop the Black Attack" in January. Attorney Ben Crump threatened to file a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration over the ban of an Advanced Placement course on African American Studies in Florida high schools on behalf of three Leon County school students.

"We're very excited about the potential of courses like this to build a pipeline for students to build on their futures," Stepp said.

"We hope this whets students' appetites to learn more," Waters agreed.

Contact Phaedra Trethan by email at ptrethan@usatoday.com or on X (formerly Twitter) @wordsbyphaedra.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: AP African American studies course updated again. What's changed, why?