A New AP Course Advances the Teaching of Race in American History (While the Right Seeks to Restrict It)Roundup
tags: racism, African American history, teaching history, critical race theory
Michelle A. Purdy is associate professor of education and affiliated with African and African-American Studies, at Washington University in St. Louis. She is author of Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
Even as conservatives push statewide bans on the teaching of critical race theory or lessons on racism and other topics that might cause general discomfort to White students, the College Board is launching a very different sort of initiative. This fall, the organization is piloting a new AP course in African American studies in 60 U.S. high schools. The course, which was designed with input from K-12 teachers and professors across the country, will address African American life, culture and history.
These seemingly contradictory impulses in our education landscape are the result of a nation divided about what students should learn and what teachers should teach. On one side, conservative activists seek to stifle academic freedom by quelling curriculums that expose U.S. fault lines. On the other hand, social justice educators embrace a much more robust and full understanding of the United States, one that is rooted in the African American quest to show the centrality of Black Americans to U.S. life and history.
And this is nothing new. The nation’s public schools have long been caught in a tug of war over whether they should be used to conserve or disrupt existing social arrangements. Alternate efforts to constrict and expand academic freedom in the nation’s schools have been central to how politicians, educators and activists have tried to encourage social change or resist it.
With the onset of Jim Crow following the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that allowed for “separate but equal” public accommodations, African Americans did all they could to educate themselves despite state-sanctioned racism. As they contributed their time, talent and treasures to developing schools, they also created new curriculums that countered the continued belief in the inferiority of Black people and any thoughts of them as passive individuals. From early on, African American educators, leaders and community members saw academic freedom and the broadening of the curriculum as a primary force in the fight for social justice.
By the early 20th century, White schools began using textbooks that attempted to create a unified, graded curriculum, while telling a story of American history and culture centered on the heroic supremacy of White men.
But African American educators immediately pushed back against this curriculum. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson — the son of former enslaved people who completed his PhD in 1912 at Harvard while teaching in Washington, D.C. — began the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Later, Woodson created what would become Black History Month in an attempt to upend the white supremacist narratives infiltrating American schools. He also understood that academic freedom could be a powerful tool for confronting the central problem in U.S. schools, what historian Jarvis Givens has described as “the condemnation of Black life in school curriculum and ideology.” Such latitude would empower Black teachers to correct the biases and falsehoods in these new textbooks.