What really happened to AP African American studies

A student writes in a notebook with a pen.
A student takes notes during AP African American studies at Overland High School on November 1, 2022, in Aurora, Colorado. The AP African-American Studies course is part of a national pilot class that about 60 schools nationwide are participating in. | RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The College Board is facing backlash from conservatives who want it to do less — and from left-leaning critics who say it isn’t doing enough.

When the College Board began developing its AP African American studies class amid the social justice uprisings of 2020, it set out to create a pathbreaking high school class that would demand that students deeply engage with African American history, culture, movements, and debates.

But six months into a pilot program at a few dozen schools, the course is at the center of controversy. An official framework the College Board released last week omits concepts and scholars that experts, including many consulted by the College Board while developing the class, say are core to modern Black studies and essential to include in any college-level survey class. The omissions include some of the most frequently read authors on introductory African American studies syllabi — syllabi that the College Board studied while developing the class.

These concepts were included in an earlier version of the framework, but they were cut from the new official framework, which was released shortly after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attacked the pilot version of the class for covering many of the subjects it now omits: Black queer studies, intersectionality, and Black Lives Matter, and the scholars Kimberlé Crenshaw, Robin D.G. Kelley, bell hooks, and Angela Davis, among others. Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz announced that the state would not allow schools to adopt the course until the College Board removed the “problematic” topics it identified. When the College Board released the new framework, those topics were gone.

The sequence of events has led critics to accuse the College Board of bowing to political pressure from DeSantis, or shying away from a fight in other conservative states that have passed bans on teaching “divisive concepts.” The College Board has denied these accusations and said the revisions are routine changes that have nothing to do with DeSantis or the current political climate.

The revised framework, and the reaction it has elicited, has created a storm of controversy that risks overshadowing what value the course may have and underscores the fraught conditions under which African American studies was born.

After the omissions, the course that remains is mostly African American history up until 1965, with elements of culture. But an introductory-level college class in African American studies, scholars in the field told Vox, should help students connect the past with the present through theory. African American studies is the study of Black resistance to structural racism — and, as such, it was likely always going to be on a collision course with conservative states that would prefer schools not discuss the concept in the first place.

Critics argue that though the College Board vowed to create a course that would truly encompass the breadth of the African American experience in America and beyond, it bowed to political forces at a time when conservative backlash is already limiting how teachers can talk about race, gender, and sexual orientation, among other topics, in the classroom.

“You cannot have a non-political African American Studies course because its whole invention, its raison d’être came out of political struggle,” said Kelley, a professor of history at UCLA and one of the authors omitted from the new version of the framework. “You can’t professionalize something that was actually created in the midst of protests.”

What is — and isn’t — in the AP African American studies framework

The AP African American studies class is being taught in about 60 schools this year, the first of a two-year pilot process. Beginning in spring 2025, students will be able to take the AP exam and be eligible for college credit if they pass. When the College Board released the official framework for the course last week, it was the first time that the course content became publicly available. Schools offering the course this year had been working from a draft framework that had not been made public.

The framework, according to the College Board, is not a syllabus; it is what the professors, teachers, and researchers they consulted think should be included in an introductory college-level course. Teachers must use the framework’s required components, accompanied by a textbook and readings of their choice, to develop lesson plans. Students must complete a three-week capstone project, on a topic they choose, worth 20 percent of their AP exam grade.

The framework is detailed: It includes specific sources, the texts or authors that students must examine; learning objectives, or what students should know and be able to do; and “essential content knowledge” about any given topic. Under four broad units, it includes week-by-week focus areas, with topics expected to take one to two class periods’ worth of instruction.

The first unit covers early African societies; students then study the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, and Jim Crow in units two and three; and contemporary issues in unit four. Each unit is broken down into weekly focus areas, with a list of topics (such as “the African continent: A varied landscape” or “Black pride, identity, and the question of naming”). For a teacher’s syllabus to pass AP muster, they must teach all the listed topics and required texts included in the framework.

Any versions of the framework that predated the public release last week were never circulated publicly. But Vox obtained a copy of the earlier version, and comparing it to the new one reveals many differences.

Topics and sources are reordered, renamed, or removed altogether. For example, a topic on “enslavement in Africa,” covering enslavement in West Africa before the Atlantic slave trade, was removed; a topic titled “African Americans and the US occupation of Haiti” was nixed, though the framework still calls for two days on the impact of the Haitian Revolution earlier in the course.

New topics and texts were also added: “the concept of race and the reproduction of status,” and “the Black Panther Party” in unit four. Others were merged: The final framework combines “the Black Is Beautiful movement” and “the Black arts movement” into one instructional day.

What most critics of the revisions have drawn attention to, though, are the changes to the final unit — which covers contemporary movements and ongoing debates in African American culture and politics.

For one, what has emerged in the final framework is a sanitized discussion of Black women’s leadership in society. A topic titled “The Black feminist movement and womanism” was removed, along with text suggestions including excerpts from writer and African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker, and renowned Black feminist writer Audre Lorde. So was “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” a text from Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a leading scholar of African American women’s history (who endorsed the new framework). The Combahee River Collective, a landmark Black feminist organization, still appears in the framework as essential knowledge, but the group’s statement is no longer required reading.

“Intersectionality and activism,” which would have had students analyze connections to Chicana and Asian American feminist thought, didn’t make it to the official framework, along with texts by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw who coined the term “intersectionality” and has boosted critical race theory; pioneering Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins; and Marxist and feminist activist Angela Davis. The committee also removed the topic “Black feminist literary thought” along with texts by novelist Gloria Naylor, feminist author bell hooks, and celebrated poet Nikki Giovanni.

While the framework still includes topics about Black women’s movements, it no longer uses the words “feminism” or “womanism” in those contexts.

“Intersectionality describes an old concept that goes back to the 19th century, that Black women experience multiple sites of oppression. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined it within the context of legal scholarship, making it easier to discuss a historical problem identified by Black women,” said Khalil Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. “The interesting thing is Higginbotham’s article, ‘The Metalanguage of Race,’ would have gotten at this core context, but that disappears.”

The College Board has also removed topics that could help students understand the current conservative backlash behind laws like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation or the Stop WOKE Act: The topic “Black queer studies” and texts from political scientist Cathy Cohen, gender and sexuality studies scholar Roderick Ferguson, and race and sexuality scholar E. Patrick Johnson were excluded from the official framework. As were the topics “postracial racism and colorblindness” and “incarceration and abolition.”

Other topics that could help students understand contemporary Black culture, resistance, and protest did not make the cut. “Black vernacular, pop culture, and cultural appropriation” and “movements for Black lives,” along with texts from African American Studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and sociologist Leslie Kay Jones, were not included in the final framework.

“It seems silly to take out the Black Lives Matter movement even though it’s only been around the past half-dozen years or more. Sixteen-year-olds would be fascinated by that,” said Yale University historian David Blight, who withdrew his endorsement of the official framework when he saw the earlier version. “And why remove queer studies as a topic? Kids are either gay themselves, [or] all kids are entirely aware of the fight for gay rights and the fight for transgender rights.”

The College Board also added new topics to the later units, including required texts by former secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and President Barack Obama. The organization also added “Black conservatism” as a new recommended topic for the capstone project.

Many of the concepts that were removed overlap with the topics DeSantis and Diaz, the Florida education commissioner, highlighted, and led critics of the College Board’s changes to argue that the organization caved to political pressure.

“It’s just not believable that the broader context of conservative backlash against the history of race and racism, more generally, as well as the more forceful critiques coming out of Florida did not influence, directly or indirectly, the final choices they made about what appears in the printed framework,” said Muhammad.

The College Board denies that this happened: “It is a juicy story to fabricate a cause-and-effect line between the outcome of the published framework and the topics that DeSantis underscored,” said Teresa Reed, a professor of music at the University of Louisville and a member of the development committee.

“But as someone who’s attended the development committee meetings, been involved in the work, and has been tasked with looking at the units and making recommendations, I can say that not one time, in any of those meetings, did the name DeSantis come up. Nor did the name of any political issue, or anything outside of the expertise around the table — none of that at any point ever, ever came up,” Reed said.

The AP says its changes were routine — but experts and scholars are skeptical

According to the committee that designed the course, the release of the official framework was part of the College Board’s routine: The College Board says it mostly completed the official framework by December 22 and intentionally released it on February 1 to coincide with the first day of Black History Month.

The process to produce the framework began in spring of 2021 (the College Board first discussed the possibility of the course a decade ago) when the board conducted extensive research to determine what to include in the course. Staff collected and analyzed syllabi from 107 colleges and universities, conducted online surveys and advisory sessions with college faculty, and held virtual focus groups with 28 high school and college students. By the fall, they asked college faculty to rank and consolidate content to bring the course down to the core information that could fit into 140 class periods.

“Our very first problem was that there was just too much,” Reed said. ”As a music historian, I can easily think of 25 resources that I think are nonnegotiable. […] Multiply that times the number of other disciplinary specializations around the table and you end up with something that will not take one year to teach but it might take five years to teach.”

But even given the need for a broad survey course, some of the cuts fly in the face of the College Board’s own research. In its conversations with college faculty, the organization found that “intersectionality” was the second most frequently mentioned topic; “diaspora” was the first.

One participant told them: “Please think about Black women and LGBTQ people as central to the history and future of the African diaspora.” Another added, “Scope is key; [this is] not just Black male studies.”

When the board asked college faculty to rank content topics and themes, “intersectionality, cultural production and appropriation, and structural racism” were selected as the most essential ones, according to data included in the draft framework. Yet none of these topics made it to the official framework.

When I asked the College Board why the concept of “intersectionality” didn’t make it to the final draft, Steve Bumbaugh, the organization’s senior vice president of college, career, and digital access, told me that intersectionality was still in the framework on page 219 — as a suggested topic that students could explore for their final project.

“If the College Board were trying to appease Governor DeSantis, it did so miserably by flinging open the doors for students to take this high-stakes project and investigate literally any topic they want, including how right-wing political extremism may be used to block educational opportunities for African American students. That’s a project I’d love to read. And I believe we have sufficient evidence for it,” said Reed.

Kerry Haynie, a professor of political science at Duke University and a member of the development committee, told me that while intersectionality is no longer a topic in the framework, it is represented throughout the course. “My latest book is on intersectionality. I think it is important, but that doesn’t mean that my colleague teaching the course would include it,” Haynie said. “We looked at 100 syllabi, and intersectionality doesn’t appear on the syllabi of every introductory college course.”

Still, the choice to make the topic of intersectionality optional, with no guarantee that students will explore it for their projects, says a lot, according to critics. “If you leave intersectionality as a possible option, you have made a statement,” Blight told Vox.

Aside from the need to reduce the breadth of the course, the College Board said it was important to ground the course on primary sources, hence the removal of any required secondary sources, and to avoid copyright access issues that could arise with some authors, including James Baldwin.

“It’s kind of a false distinction, what’s primary and what’s secondary,” said Blight, citing pieces like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” as a kind of primary source. According to Kelley, the insistence on the use of primary sources for what’s supposed to be a college-level course is another way the College Board has tried to avoid political scandal.

“Part of the capitulation is this idea that we have to have a non-political curriculum in order to satisfy the expectations of state governments and school boards,” said Kelley. “The more you focus on primary sources, the less controversial the course seems to be.”

Some of the removed texts are widely read in college classes. The College Board’s syllabi analysis found that scholar Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was the second most common text on the college syllabi, after W.E.B. Du Bois’s essay “The Souls of Black Folk.” (Du Bois’s essay appeared on 24 syllabi, while Alexander’s nonfiction book appeared on 18. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” ranked third with 12 features.)

Some of the most common authors didn’t make it to the official framework. Coates and Alexander were removed, though they ranked in the top five among authors appearing on 10 or more institutions’ syllabi. They both appeared on 16 syllabi, while Du Bois ranked first, appearing on 54 syllabi; Frederick Douglass appeared on 21, and MLK on 17.

Bumbaugh argued that the class was developed with equity in mind to benefit first-generation college students, Black students, Latino students, and others who are underrepresented on college campuses.

“Research has shown that these students do better academically when they see representatives of themselves in their teachers and in the curriculum, and when they take an AP course, they are much more likely to attend college, to perform better, and to graduate,” Bumbaugh told Vox. “It’s why we’ve been trying to build this course for years and have been pushing to develop it through an equity lens. So I have to say, it is utterly baffling now to hear from people I’ve known for decades, people I respect and trust, that somehow we are approaching this with a political lens.”

He concluded: “No politician has ever added or subtracted a single semicolon from the AP African American studies curriculum. That’s just a fact.”

There are still a lot of questions about the College Board’s decisions

While the College Board has said it made the revisions before DeSantis’s criticism, critics say it stretches credulity to argue that the current climate, in which conservative states are pushing back on the teaching of history, did not play a role in streamlining the course, eliminating hot-button current topics, and weakening its coverage of theory.

“This isn’t so much about the specific work that was removed but about the overall shift in the framework,” said Kelley. “This is a response to political pressure no matter what the College Board says.”

Others say the discourse shouldn’t ignore the College Board’s power as an organization. The board’s ultimate goal is to get as many institutions as possible to commit to the course. So far, more than 200 institutions have committed to accepting the course for college credit. But multiple states have banned the teaching of “divisive content” or critical race theory, which could limit the new course’s reach or even lead to broader backlash against the College Board.

“The context is not just DeSantis. Dozens of states have passed or are considering these divisive concept laws,” Blight told Vox. “The broader issue is fighting these laws. Whatever the content of this particular course is, this course has become a lightning rod for a much bigger problem — and that’s how do we enhance public schools and teachers?”

And, until recently, when schools began ending the requirement that applicants take the SAT, which the College Board administers, “no one got to college without some kind of economic relationship to the College Board. I think it is impossible not to recognize that an organization of this size and wealth has tremendous incentives to protect its brand,” said Muhammad.

Last year, when College Board broke the news of the course, spokespeople, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, distanced the course from critical race theory and emphasized that it was not connected to the 1619 Project, which has faced its own pushback.

“We missed an opportunity to say, ‘You know what, critical race theory is not taught in elementary, junior high school, and most high schools — but it should be,” said Kelley. Critical race theory could explain why Tyre Nichols was killed by five Black cops or how an entire committee of Black scholars could create a course that is so clearly watered down due to political pressure, Kelley said.

College Board members say there is no plan to release another revised framework for now, but said it is customary to revise AP courses every few years to better reflect the times. The committee has also said that the framework is not the totality of the course, and that an online portal will give students and teachers access to additional material.

But some say it’s too late and that the College Board’s course, while still valuable, loses much of what makes African American studies unique — and its refusal to acknowledge the role of backlash has worsened the situation.

“If the College Board were to say, ‘We recognize that in a climate of fear stoked by an attack on academic freedom, and particularly the history of race and racism in this country, we cannot even discern fully how the pilot itself might have been impacted by these choices, that would make a difference,” Muhammad said. “Instead, they are managing a very sophisticated communications strategy.”

The changes, some scholars argue, undermine the course entirely: “In my view, it is not worthy of advanced placement. In other words, it’s supposed to be a college-level course. It is not a college-level course,” said Kelley. “It’s a mistake to put all of our eggs in the basket of advanced placement, when what we should be fighting for is the introduction of African American studies for all students, not just the ones who can take AP courses.”

And the controversy has broader implications for the future of public schools, too. “Whatever the content of this particular course is, it has become a lightning rod for a much bigger problem,” said Blight. “And that is is, how do we support, buttress, and save public school, and who gets to control knowledge and education?”

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