Students believe that the new AP African American studies class is accessible to all.

In Lorton, Virginia, Sean Miller lowers the volume on the blaring tunes of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to commence his educational journey of the day, traversing through centuries with spontaneous detours along the way.

The class initiates with a discourse on Black joy, highlighting Olympic gymnast and local Virginian Gabby Douglas. Subsequently, the discussion navigates to the topic of Black History Month. The question arises: Has the significance of this annual observance waned? Following a video snippet on the origins of the month, divergent views emerge. While some argue for the perpetuation of the celebration, a teen proposes legislation mandating its observance.

The conversation then delves into the differentiation between “slave” and “enslaved person.” The distinction is crucial – one denotes a person’s status, the other emphasizes their humanity. The students then dissect sketches of captives from the 1839 Amistad revolt. As the session concludes, Miller intertwines themes from the Al Green anthem, seamlessly connecting various topics like musical chords. “Uncovering triumph amidst challenges and tragedies necessitates a touch of inventiveness,” Miller later articulates.

Introducing Advanced Placement African American Studies, a course still in its experimental phase, lauded by students nationwide but met with constraints in Florida and Arkansas owing to concerns from conservatives who perceive the curriculum as leftist propaganda, potentially fostering negative sentiments among white students.

AP African American Studies teacher Sean Miller helps students at his Lorton, Virginia, school make connections between the past and present.

The course, possessing the academic rigor akin to a college-level course and the interdisciplinary breadth of an ethnic studies seminar, encompasses four units spanning ancient African civilizations to contemporary movements. By mid-May, around 13,000 students from 700 schools in 42 states and Washington, D.C., will be eligible to sit for the AP African American Studies exam. Acing this test could yield students credit at over 300 colleges endorsing it.

Despite the challenging nature of the course, students affirm that the content is profound and accessible. Caury Crusoe, at 17, characterizes the class as a vibrant dialogue. In conversations with USA TODAY, students and educators attest to the transformative impact of the course, enhancing self-esteem and instilling a newfound pride in their heritage among many Black teens. They appreciate the enlightening curriculum and a deeper recognition of shared human experiences.

The surge in demand from teens, particularly Black youth, who participate less in AP courses compared to their white and Asian counterparts, indicates a potential expansion of the course across numerous U.S. schools following its full-scale launch in the upcoming fall. Noteworthy challenges loom ahead, as proposed bans targeting critical race theory (CRT) and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) feature on legislative agendas.

The College Board refrained from disclosing schools offering the course. However, USA TODAY, aided by states, districts, universities, and local journalists, identified nearly 370 campuses affiliated with nearly 200 school districts providing the class, encompassing over half of the piloting schools. Some institutions, including the sole Florida establishment piloting, are privately-run.

A majority of the schools and districts presenting AP African American Studies align with locales backing President Joe Biden in the 2020 elections, with a higher proportion of Black high school students compared to the national average.

A detailed examination of email correspondence from education officials in some conservative states underscores hesitancy surrounding the course due to public perceptions.

“There’s always a certain amount of fear and anxiety and backlash that’s associated with these efforts,” stated Michael Hines, a Stanford education historian specializing in African American activism. Hines anticipates a prolonged tussle over this course as part of an ongoing cycle.

AP African American Studies Galvanizes Concerns on Critical Race Theory

The launch of AP African American Studies marks a significant moment heralding the importance of African American history and the broader African diaspora, as emphasized by Thomas Tucker, the chief equity officer at Kentucky’s education department. He envisions this period as a pivotal juncture in aiding Americans to appreciate the intricate narrative of African people across history.

In one of their first projects, students in Sean Miller's AP African American Studies In Lorton, Virginia, class made clay figurines and coins representing ancient African civilizations.
Caury Crusoe, middle, a student at South County High School, said she loves Sean Miller's conversational teaching style in AP African American Studies.

Critics often depict AP African American Studies as fixated on division and suffering, a perception that nearly dissuaded two of Miller’s students from enrollment. A Black student, Renee Prox, pondered the effects on her college admissions prospects due to the course’s political undertones. Similarly, a white student, Abigail Plageman, hesitated based on her parents’ concerns stemming from media coverage on CRT.

Allegations that the course delves into CRT, a doctrine delving into entrenched societal racism, have been widespread amidst revisions.

Florida’s education department banned the course in January 2023 citing a lack of educational value, with Governor Ron DeSantis critiquing an initial draft as a political agenda injecting radical progressive ideologies into history education. Subsequent alterations elicited mixed reactions, with advocates lamenting content modifications. Updates last summer, culminating in a revised version released in December, reintroduced contentious concepts like intersectionality while keeping others, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, optional.

Following Florida’s lead, Arkansas’s education department also imposed restrictions on the course, prompting a review pledge from several conservative states. Despite this, some Arkansas schools proceeded with piloting the course; however, students cannot earn graduation credits due to the state’s stance. Subsequent adjustments in the framework may allow Arkansas students to earn credits the following year per state graduation requirements.

Insight:Gov. Ron DeSantis’ clash with the College Board over AP African American Studies

Internal communications obtained by USA TODAY unveil reservations among staff in conservative states regarding the course following critiques from figures like DeSantis.

“I am a bit concerned about this course,” wrote Davonne Eldredge, North Dakota’s assistant director of academic support, in a January 2023 email, deliberating on adopting the curriculum. The state refrained from a formal evaluation, attributed to minimal school interest in piloting the class.

Virginia, another state scrutinizing the curriculum, grappled with messaging discrepancies due to media attention on the controversy. The state eventually affirmed compliance with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s anti-CRT order but debated further course modifications, wary of journalistic scrutiny.

South County High, one of 16 schools piloting the course in Virginia this academic year, designates AP African American Studies as an elective, distinct from a required social studies course for graduation.

Advanced Placement courses place a big emphasis on primary-source material, and that's especially true in AP African American Studies. During a class on Feb. 15, 2024, South County High School teacher Sean Miller and students discuss sketches from the Amistad rebellion.

Despite revisions, critics monitoring course evolution remain wary.

Michael Gonzalez, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, flags CRT and the activist ideologies of the Black Lives Matter movement persisting in the latest framework despite exclusions or optional inclusions. The recurrent theme of systemic racism in the curriculum suggests alignment with CRT in Gonzalez’s assessment, particularly citing the term “oppression” referenced 19 times.

In conversations with USA TODAY, Gonzalez and his colleague, Jonathan Butcher, underscored the importance of incorporating African American experiences within a broader U.S. history framework. They argue that comprehending African American history alongside other social narratives fosters a more holistic understanding. This approach, they contend, avoids relegating the narrative solely to racism and oppression, which they view as misrepresentative and divisive.

“We want young people to believe that the American dream belongs to them … that they do have a future,” emphasized Butcher, an education policy research fellow at Heritage. “If you, instead, give young people something that they need to resist, to look down upon, you’re robbing them of the chance of having something to live up to.”

Unveiling Black History Beyond the Negative

In sessions spanning months, students shared with USA TODAY how the course broadened their knowledge and imbued them with a sense of optimism. Plageman, a centrist white student, noted that the lessons did not alter her perspectives but provided a comprehensive understanding of U.S. history beyond her prior education. She distinguished AP African American Studies from CRT, affirming it to be a distinctive social studies course expanding her historical insights.

Prox, a Black student initially wary of the course’s impact on her academic record, expressed satisfaction with her decision to enroll. She praises the curriculum for its comprehensive exploration of the African diaspora, affirming its role in showcasing the growth and heritage of Black communities.

“We were oblivious to how the story of an African past is a glorious one. It’s not just a reshaping of the narrative. It is an introduction of a narrative that, for so many of us, simply did not exist.”

Teresa Reed, a dean and music professor at the University of Louisville, who serves on the course’s development committee

Black history is under attack:From AP African American Studies to ‘Ruby Bridges’

Caury Crusoe, left, speaks with her teacher, Sean Miller, during an AP African American Studies class at South County High School in Lorton, Virginia, on Feb. 15, 2024.

Crusoe, echoing the sentiment of a continuous conversation in the course, credits the program for instilling ambition and pride. This newfound perspective prompted her to explore a humanities discipline with a social justice emphasis at North Carolina A&T, a historically Black college in Greensboro. She frequently discusses course insights with her mother and spearheads the Black Student Alliance at her school. Despite general disinterest in history, Crusoe emphasizes her teacher’s engaging approach that sparks enthusiasm for the subject.

She treasures discovering the resilience of her forebears, the profound legacies of ancient African civilizations, the impact of contemporary Black icons, and the everyday heroism demonstrated by individuals like her parents. Crusoe underscores the need to view Black history through a lens that transcends adversity.

The Heritage scholars advocate for a broader historical curriculum encompassing African American experiences alongside other societal narratives. Gonzalez emphasizes that African American history is integral to national heritage, emphasizing a more inclusive approach to depicting America’s historical tapestry.

Students in South County High's AP African American Studies class in Lorton, Virginia, said they love learning about the history of the African diaspora.

Students and educators contend that a specialized curriculum is essential to delve deeper into African American history, given the cursory treatment of this narrative in traditional U.S. history classes, often limited to slavery and civil rights movements.

The national endorsement and launch of a comprehensive African American studies course by the College Board mark a pivotal moment in untangling the intricate history of African Americans. Teresa Reed, hailing from a predominantly Black community in the 1960s, illustratesthat the course provides a long-overdue narrative that celebrates the glorious past of African ancestors, shaping a narrative previously neglected.

Celebrating Resilience in Black History

The interdisciplinary approach observed in South County High classes this spring showcases the course’s design intent. Students are encouraged to connect past narratives with contemporary events, bridging the Amistad uprising with Gabby Douglas’s accomplishments in the Olympics.

Miller, an ex-marketing professional chairing the high school’s social studies, infuses practical skills guidance within his lessons. During a class session, students team up to plan a podcast project under Miller’s mentorship. The final podcast is expected to be well-structured, professional episode addressing multiple curriculum themes, and their performance determines their unit test score.

Teenagers buzz with enthusiasm as they collaborate on podcast ideas. Crusoe and her partner debate logo designs, while others ponder content themes like Black music, fashion, literature, and media representation. Miller employs a blend of humor, sharp wit, and vocabulary to engage students, fostering a culture of high expectations while emphasizing personal growth and engaging storytelling.

In his efforts to foster a culture of resilience over victimhood, Miller advocates focusing on the triumphs born out of adversities. Clad in a “Built by Black History” T-shirt, he underscores the resilience and positive response of the community amidst dark periods.

His aim is to instill a perspective where students recognize the enduring spirit of those who triumphed over challenges. “I want them to walk out the door and say, ‘Wow, these are people who persevered.’” 

Contributing: Doug Caruso, data editor at USA TODAY, analyzed demographic and political trends across districts we identified were piloting AP African American Studies this school year.  

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