AP African American Studies Should Teach Black History, Not Activism

Peter Wood and David Randall

The College Board has just released a revised Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course (APAAS). The College Board substantially revised APAAS after Governor Ron DeSantis announced that Florida would reject the course as it appeared in the pilot version. Governor DeSantis’ administration determined that the proposed course violated the STOP W.O.K.E. Act. Noted education reformer Stanley Kurtz has provided extensive evidence to justify that determination.

Most of the readings in the latter section of APAAS reject colorblindness in some fashion or other. The course even assigns writings by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, by any definition pillars of critical race theory. True, these readings focus on Crenshaw’s and Collins’s writings on intersectionality. Yet both Collins and Crenshaw view intersectionality through the prism of CRT [Critical Race Theory].

Florida was correct to reject the proposed APAAS course just for the radicalization of these final readings in the course, and every state in the union should follow suit. Florida may determine that the revised course will pass muster. Certainly the revision has removed the worst components of the initial version course.

The revised APAAS curriculum has many fewer topics than the original. Nearly every now-omitted topic was filled with socialism, CRT, or some other radical perspective. Originally, an entire topic was devoted to Frantz Fanon’s glorification of violence — and its influence on black radicals in America. That topic is now gone. Another topic one-sidedly excoriated American foreign policy in Haiti. Gone. The unit on black queer studies has also been deleted. DeSantis won that showdown with Governor Pritzker. A topic on “Afrocentricity,” the scholarly legitimacy of which is very much in dispute, is gone. Also gone is a CRT-based unit calling colorblindness racist (in direct violation of Florida law). Units plugging reparations, prison abolition, intersectionality, the socialist platform of the Movement for Black Lives, and the revolutionary meditations of Marxist radical Robin D. G. Kelley, are likewise gone. That’s an awful lot of radicalism disappeared.

APAAS, however, still possesses deep flaws. The flaws stem from the fact that it is an Introduction to African American Studies, not African American History AP. African American Studies is not (as the name suggests to the casual reader) an interdisciplinary study of African American history and culture. It is, rather, a pseudo-discipline devoted to myth building and political activism. The trouble is not that APAAS fails in its attempt “to be the equivalent of an introductory college or university course in African American Studies and related courses, including Africana Studies, African Diaspora Studies, and Black Studies” (p. 5), but that it succeeds.

African American Studies is not an intellectual discipline. It is a political project to forward a radical conception of “Black Liberation,” based upon the presumptions of identity-group politics. APAAS itself devotes substantial time to the development of African American Studies within its own course material.

African American studies emerged from Black artistic, intellectual, and political endeavors that predate its formalization as a field of study. In the 21st century, it continues to offer a lens for understanding contemporary Black freedom struggles within and beyond the academy. (p. 212)

African American studies remains a primary means to examine the global influence of Black expression and racial inequities. The field establishes frameworks for analyses of Black history, literature, politics, and other subjects not previously included in more traditional disciplines. (p. 212)

African American Studies is devoted to activism, not to intellectual inquiry. The original APAAS quoted Darleen Clark Hine’s “A Black Studies Manifesto” (2014) which stated that in Black Studies (African American Studies), “freedom struggles remain ongoing imperatives” (Original, p. 60). The University of Texas at Austin’s Black Studies program describes its work as “a history rooted in activism.” The University of Florida’s own African American Studies program bases its professional studies on radical activism:

Community‐based learning: This focus honors the applied, experiential, and activist model from which Black Studies programs originally developed. Pedagogies of community service learning and advocacy scholarship are central to the engaged nature of the program.

A standard work, Abdul Alkalimat’s The History of Black Studies, argues that “At its heart, Black Studies is profoundly political. Black Power, the New Communist Movement, the Black women's and students' movements – each step in the journey for Black liberation influenced and was influenced by this revolutionary discipline.” The original APAAS stated generally that, “Students should understand core concepts [of African American Studies], including diaspora, Black feminism and intersectionality, the language of race and racism (e.g., structural racism, racial formation, racial capitalism) and be introduced to important approaches (e.g., Pan-Africanism, Afrofuturism)” (Original, p. 68). The revised APAAS may avoid explicit citation of the radical and activist goals of the African American Studies pseudo-discipline, but it is still formed to advance them.

APAAS therefore provides a carefully edited selection of African and African American history and culture, meant to forward the project of creating activists. The original version distorted blatantly; the revised version does so in a more sophisticated manner. Where the original glorified medieval West African empires without mentioning the vital role of the slave trade in West African state formation, elite wealth, and civilizational accomplishments (Original, pp. 35-37), the revised version at least alludes to that fact, although not during its main discussion of these empires (pp. 26-31, 44). The original APAAS mentioned few or no instances of cooperation between whites and blacks; the revised version at least includes material such as, “The abolitionist movement in the United States between 1830 and 1870 … was led by Black activists and White supporters” (p. 108). Frederick Douglass would have judged this ungenerous treatment of William Lloyd Garrison, but at least APAAS now hints at Garrison’s existence.

The larger trouble is that African American Studies shapes its very selective presentation of African and African American history to promote an ideological and activist intellectual project. APAAS’ African history is a scattering of glorifying set pieces that suit modern nationalist polemic (Great Zimbabwe pp. 33-35), Swahili city-states (pp. 36-37), glorious West African empires (pp. 26-31). An essential national culture unites Africa, the African diaspora, and African Americans—and therefore APAAS minimizes the role of Africans in the slave trade (p. 44) or of maroons as slavecatchers (pp. 95-97). The history of the African diaspora is a history of resistance—and therefore APAAS foregrounds rare episodes such as the Haitian Revolution (pp. 88-90) and the Amistad (pp. 66-67) and redefines the petty non-cooperations of everyday slavery as a noble tradition of resistance (p. 91).

African American history and culture, meanwhile, only matters to APAAS to the extent that it forwards the political goals of radical liberation. African American Christianity is reduced to an empty vessel that “animated political action and justified African Americans’ pursuit of liberation” (p. 82), with little if any attention paid to African Americans’ belief in Christianity for its own sake. APAAS ignores African Americans such as William Seymour, whose role in the Azusa Street Revival and modern Pentecostalism is of extraordinary importance, but not convenient for African American Studies’ preferred activism.

African American artistic endeavor, meanwhile, fundamentally only matters because “During the Black Freedom movement of the 20th century, Black artists contributed to the struggle for racial equality through various forms of expression.” (p. 185) It is telling that APAAS doesn’t mention Miles Davis, whose musical excellence does not fit easily into a narrative of political activism, and only mentions Charles Mingus for his political work: “Musicians, such as jazz bassist Charles Mingus, composed protest songs reliant on African American musical traditions like call and response.” (p. 185)

It is equally telling that APAAS does not mention affirmative action, the disintegration of black families since the post-war era, welfare dependence, the role of crime in African American communities, diversity ideology as a disguise for race quotas, or any topic that might trouble the self-confidence of an African American Studies activist. The Irish nationalist movement’s glory was works such as J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907) and Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), which defied the self-serving pieties of Irish nationalism. APAAS provides no coverage of African American Synges and O’Caseys.

Some large part of APAAS consists simply of African Americans achieved this too talking points:

Kathleen Cleaver is a legal scholar and was an activist of the Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement. She encouraged Black people to embrace their natural beauty and become comfortable in their own skin.” (p. 198)

African Americans have long contributed to advancements in medicine. Among many examples, contributions include the work of Onesimus, an enslaved man who brought awareness of variolation to the British American colonies, which helped curtail smallpox; Daniel Hale Williams, who founded the first black-owned hospital in the United States and performed the world’s first successful heart surgery, in 1893; and Kizzmekia Corbett, who was central to the development of the Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccine. (p. 210)

Far too much of APAAS devolves into reciting a Catalogue of Inspiring Figures that is more appropriate for elementary school than it is for a course that is supposed to provide the equivalent of an undergraduate education.

A substantial portion of APAAS explicitly directs students to study material not for its intrinsic importance, but for its contribution to contemporary perceptions, political programs, and African American Studies itself.

Explain how African American studies reframes misconceptions about early Africa and its relationship to people of African descent. (p. 17)

Explain why Africa’s ancient societies are culturally and historically significant to Black communities and African American studies. (p. 24)

From the late 18th century onward, African American writers emphasized the significance of ancient African societies in sacred and secular texts. These texts countered racist stereotypes that portrayed Africans and their descendants as societies without government or culture and formed part of the early canon of African American studies. (p. 24)

In the mid-20th century, scholarship demonstrating the complexity and contributions of Africa’s ancient societies underpinned Africans’ political claims for self-rule and independence from European colonialism. (p. 24)

Queen Idia became an iconic symbol of Black women’s leadership throughout the diaspora in 1977 when an ivory mask of her face was adopted as the symbol for FESTAC (Second Festival of Black Arts and Culture). (p. 41)

The beads above her face depict afro-textured hair, valorizing her natural features. (p. 41)

Since abolition, Black visual and performance artists have repurposed the iconography of the slave ship to process historical trauma and honor the memory of their ancestors— the more than 12.5 million Africans who were forced onto over 36,000 known voyages for over 350 years. (p. 65)

The legacy of the Haitian Revolution had an enduring impact on Black political thinking, serving as a symbol of Black freedom and sovereignty. (p. 89)

Explain why Black women’s activism is historically and culturally significant. (p. 94)

By highlighting the connected nature of race, gender, and class in their experiences, Black women’s activism anticipated political debates that remain central to African American politics. (p. 94)

Many contemporary African American artists draw from Black aesthetic traditions to integrate historical, religious, and gender perspectives in representations of African American leaders. Their works preserve the legacy of these leaders’ bravery and resistance. (p. 110)

African Americans’ commitment to seeking joy and validation among themselves [via commemorations such as Juneteenth], despite the nation’s belated recognition of this important moment in its own history (p. 116)

Describe the development and aims of the Black intellectual tradition that predates the formal integration of African American studies into American colleges and universities in the mid-20th century. (p. 155)

The Black intellectual tradition in the United States began two centuries before the formal introduction of the field of African American studies in the late 1960s. It emerged through the work of Black activists, educators, writers, and archivists who documented Black experiences. (p. 155)

Explain the impact of diasporic solidarity between African Americans and Africans in the 20th and 21st centuries. (p. 190)

Explain how the Black Is Beautiful and Black Arts movements influenced the development of African American studies and ethnic studies. (p. 197)

The revised APAAS redefines the explicit activism of the original APAAS as “historical study”; we’re not telling you to be radical activists trained in the ideology of African American Studies, we’re just directing you to read the history of the radical activists who created the ideology of African American Studies, and of their ideologized interpretation of the African and African American past. This extensive self-referential material demonstrates that even the revised APAAS is not, and cannot be, a depoliticized introduction to African American history and culture.

It is especially telling that APAAS asks students to read an excerpt from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), and directs them to consider how “As political texts, slave narratives aimed to end slavery and the slave trade, demonstrate Black humanity, and advocate for the inclusion of people of African descent in American society” (pp. 61-62) – and does not mention Vincent Caretta’s arguments that Equiano actually was born in South Carolina rather than Africa, and that the Interesting Narrative was a mixture of truth, distortion, and falsehood meant to serve a political cause. APAAS, and African American Studies as a whole, are indeed the heirs of Equiano.

The revised APAAS remains as fundamentally misguided as the original draft. The College Board has wasted the opportunity to provide a genuine interdisciplinary examination of African and African American history and culture. Policymakers in any state who wish to approve such a course should make sure that it possesses the following characteristics:

  • A mission to provide a comprehensive education in the factual content of the subject matter, not to promote activism or to elicit from students a particular emotional response to the subject matter.
  • Nondiscrimination by race in the intended students, intended teachers, primary source materials, secondary scholarship, and presumed viewpoint.
  • Dispassionate presentation of African history and culture, including accurate presentations of the central role of African elites in the slave trades, rather than a patchwork of historical myths to inspire activists.
  • Substantial coverage of the full range of responses by Africans and African Americans to different historical circumstance, including not only resistance but also cooperation, accommodation, and surrender—the aspects of human nature that distinguish history from myth.
  • Substantial coverage of what distinguishes Africa and the different national components of the African diaspora (America, Brazil, Haiti, etc.) as well as of what unites them.
  • Substantial coverage of the role of Christianity in African American history, as more than just an adjunct to activism, from the creation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to slave preachers to gospel music to the Azusa Street Revival to the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Substantial coverage of African American letters and fine arts purely for their aesthetic quality, including works by Miles Davis, Beauford Delaney, Robert Hayden, Scott Joplin, and George Walker.
  • Substantial coverage of a range of politically diverse figures and works that include Ralph Ellison’s “The World and the Jug”; Richard Wright’s essay in The God that Failed; Dudley Randall’s “A Poet is Not a Jukebox”; and Thomas Sowell’s Race and Economics.
  • Substantial coverage of all aspects of modern African American history, including negative components such as family breakdown and the role of crime in African American communities; and including seminal documents such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (1965).
  • Substantial coverage of what makes African Americans American, and what they have contributed to and taken from the American nation.

An organization such as 1776 Unites, which has substantial experience in creating curriculum that celebrates African American excellence, rejects victimhood culture, and showcases African Americans who have prospered by embracing America’s founding ideals, would be well suited to nominate scholars who could draft the outline of an African American History course dedicated to education rather than activism.

APAAS’ fundamental flaws illustrate a more profound debility in African American Studies as a whole—and, indeed, in every kindred pseudo-discipline established to promote radical activism, whether Social Justice, Civic Engagement, Asian American Studies, Disability Studies, or Gender Studies. These disciplines are parasites in institutional spending that divert education budgets to subsidize radical activism. Policymakers in Florida and elsewhere should consider defunding, both in public K-12 education and in the public universities, every pseudo-discipline founded to forward activism instead of learning. Nor should courses, training, or professional development in any pseudo-discipline qualify K-12 teachers for licensure or licensure renewal.

These pseudo-disciplines use means such as action civics, civic engagement, and service-learning as vocational training in progressive activism. The original APAAS, for example, stated that

Projects as a way of helping students see the connection of theory and practice, and activism building on the roots of the discipline’s founding and evolution, were both discussed and debated. “Project-based approach captures students, and they take the information they are learning and apply it,” one participant explained. (Original, p. 77)

Policymakers also should defund all action civics, civic engagement, and service-learning.

APAAS illustrates the pernicious effects of the College Board’s quasi-monopoly on advanced placement assessment. The College Board presumably will use the APAAS precedent to create further courses in “studies” disciplines such as Asian American Studies, Disability Studies, Ethnic Studies, Gender Studies, Native American Studies, and Women’s Studies. Since K-12 social studies teachers will need to teach these courses, the College Board will re-educate the body of K-12 social studies teachers to become “studies” activists. Policymakers must end the College Board’s quasi-monopoly on assessment if they wish to prevent the College Board from subordinating K-12 social studies instruction to activism.

Policymakers, moreover, should examine their dual-credit and dual-enrollment systems, which allow high school students to enroll in courses for college credit. These systems already allow high school students to take courses such as Introduction to African American Studies or Introduction to Women’s Studies. Policymakers should remove all activism courses from the dual credit and dual enrollment systems.

These are matters for long-term reform. In the immediate future, Florida and the nation need solid courses in African American history. The College Board’s revised APAAS is significantly improved from the original but it still essentially devotes itself to therapeutic fantasy, from its mythical medieval West Africa to its examination of the Black Panther’s Wakanda in the concluding topic of Black Studies, Black Futures, and Afrofuturism (p. 213). No American policymakers should allow our children to waste their scarce hours in the classroom on this radical consciousness raising disguised as education.

It is easy enough, after all, to create a real course in African American History, which educates students about Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, about Richard Allen and William Seymour, about Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas.

The original APAAS stated that it wished to teach a course to “emphasize Black joy.” But American students should learn that mankind shares all its joys, however rooted in our individual experiences. When they learn about African American history and culture, they should read poems such as Robert Hayden’s Monet’s Waterlilies:

Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.

Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.

APAAS, original or revised, does not teach this faith, or this light, or this joy. But a proper course in African American History will.


Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

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