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I grew up and attended schools in the South in an area known as the Black Belt, a name given to the region because of its large Black population and black soil.
I never took a course in African American history during that time, the late 1980s and early 90s, despite being enveloped in Blackness in my neighborhoods, churches and schools. My knowledge of Black history came as sprinkling rain, a paltry amount that was never enough to have a significant impact. I needed a steady rain of knowledge to counter the anti-Blackness that inundates our society.
My home state of Alabama still does not have a state-approved African American history course. This is appalling considering Alabama’s seminal place in Civil Rights and Black history, with such events as the Montgomery bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Birmingham church bombing and the Selma-to-Montgomery march with Dr. King and future senator John Lewis and others.
So, imagine my excitement when I began noticing high schools across the South adopting electives in African American studies and history. North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee led the way in offering these courses as state-approved electives. A few schools in Alabama began offering courses in Black history too. Black students would finally be able to learn of African Americans’ historical and cultural contributions and develop an appreciation for our rich heritage and culture.
Despite the slow adoption of African American studies/history courses overall, the announcement several years ago by the College Board of the development of an AP African American studies course signaled momentous progress.
Yet just days before the start of Black History Month this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he was blocking the course in his state. The Republican governor’s resistance —and the College Board’s just-announced changes to its curriculum in apparent response to such concerns — is to the detriment of Florida public school students and has negative implications for students throughout the country.
Related: Pop Quiz: What state just banned an AP African American studies course?
Florida was scheduled to be one of the states piloting the course, but DeSantis rejected the opportunity to implement the carefully designed curriculum and demonstrate a commitment to Black students and families.
The governor claimed that he was concerned the course and its teachers would “indoctrinate” rather than educate Florida’s students.
He found fault in the course’s content and teaching methods even though it had gone through years of rigorous design by top African American studies/history scholars, and its teachers had undergone intensive training on the curriculum and AP teaching methods. He cancelled the course although it is still in the beginning phase of a multi-year pilot that is being conducted so that the College Board can learn what works and what doesn’t.
The governor’s shortsighted and abrupt response adds flames to a fire that began in 2020 when states began debating how critical race theory impacts public schools.
DeSantis decided single-handedly to reject a course on a topic in which he has no expertise — just because he doesn’t like it. There were at least two options that he could’ve explored instead of insisting on an outright cancellation. He could have waited for the College Board’s final curriculum before canceling the course. That curriculum, released today, includes changes that are in sync with the areas identified by DeSantis as problematic. The changes include some cuts of discussions of reparations, Black Lives Matter, Black feminism and Black LGBTQ+ lives. David Coleman, the head of the College Board, claims, however, that the changes were not due to political pressure but were made for pedagogical reasons.
DeSantis also could have committed to further developing the capacity of his teachers through professional learning opportunities, like those offered by The Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education, which aims to “provide solutions for more effective education around Black history and race.”
However, DeSantis was insistent on cancelling the course. The governor’s shortsighted and abrupt response adds flames to a fire that began in 2020 when states began debating how critical race theory impacts public schools. (Critical race theory explores how American law, society and history have been shaped by ideas on race and ethnicity and there is little evidence that it is taught in K-12 public schools.)
Pointing out the harm in DeSantis’ rejection, the NAACP condemned the Florida Department of Education, noting in a statement that “allowing this regression in Floridan education would be a massive step backwards for civil rights and equality throughout the state and nation.”
I implore other civil rights organizations to position themselves similarly. DeSantis’ demagoguery appears to be nothing more than a strategic move designed to bolster his possible presidential run. And he shows no concern that Florida students will be bereft of the opportunity to earn college credit for completing the AP African American studies course. Three students are planning to sue DeSantis over his rejection of the course.
His ill-informed actions could influence other state leaders, threatening this course nationwide by following the pattern of “anti-CRT” laws passed in Republican-led states in 2021-22.
Historically, Black education in the U.S. has been characterized by exclusion, deprivation of opportunities, denial of access and curriculum marginalization. The governor’s actions further this history.
In his apparent attempt to cancel African American culture, Gov. DeSantis is impeding the success of Black students. Here’s what research shows to be true. When Black students are afforded the opportunity to enroll in intellectually rigorous high school ethnic studies courses like African American studies, they experience higher achievement and hold more positive views of themselves.
Without the AP African American studies course, today’s students will receive exactly what I did 35 years ago in Alabama — a sporadic sprinkling of Black history. To counter anti-Blackness and internalized racism, they need a steady rain in the form of the AP African American studies course and others like it — which will hopefully include more information on the topics recently downplayed by the College Board — so that they can grow into more thoughtful, aware, respectful and confident adults.
Altheria Caldera is a senior professorial lecturer at American University in Washington, D.C., and CEO of Caldera & Associates Equity Consulting.
This story about AP African American studies was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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