Is the new AP African American Studies course dangerous? Students don’t think so

A writer observes one of the pilot project classes

February 15, 2023 5:30 am

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2022 in Orlando, also signed a law limiting the history that can be taught in Florida schools. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Three days after the nation honored Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education announced that no Florida public high school would be allowed to teach the nation’s first and only Advanced Placement or AP African American Studies course at the college level. She asserted that the “course lacks educational value and is contrary to Florida law.”

That law, signed into effect by Gov. Ron Desantis last spring, states in part that, “a person should not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part.” Fair enough. No one should be instructed to feel any particular emotion. A good education is one that teaches students to seek information and data, and then discuss and evaluate it rationally and critically. Which is exactly what AP courses are designed to do, including the African American Studies course.

Maurice Cowley is teaching college-level African American Studies at McDaniel High School. (Photo courtesy of the Oregon Capital Chronicle)

AP African American Studies has been in the works for 10 years, and is finally concluding a one-year pilot in 60 schools nationwide. Portland’s McDaniel High School is home to Oregon’s only pilot project class. There, instructor Maurice Cowley resides over an enthusiastic group of 33 students — some Black, some white, some Hispanic, some never having even thought of taking an AP class before.

On the day I observed the class, Cowley began by asking students which of two posters was “more dope”: a black, red, yellow and green BLACK HISTORY IS AMERICAN HISTORY poster, or a black and white poster saying BLACK HISTORY IS PART OF AMERICAN HISTORY?

A freewheeling discussion ensued. What are the Pan African colors? What do they represent? What’s the difference between being American history or being part of it? Can you talk about African American history without talking about American history? And, perhaps more importantly, can you talk about American history without talking about the history of African Americans and what they did to help define the country?

Cowley was fresh back from Washington, D.C. where the week before he had met with others teaching the pilot course. The College Board, a nonprofit that helps students prepare for higher education, is gathering input and refining the AP African American Studies for its launch in September. “The point of the curriculum,” Cowley told me, “is not to wallow in history, but to ask how do we continue to make our country an amazing place for all people?”

After the poster discussion, students gave presentations about different African American leaders. But instead of the usual line-up of notables like Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks or King, the students drew their inspiration from lesser known African American artists, poets, athletes, scientists, and even cowboys, who, I learned from one student’s research, had once made up 25% of those icons of the range.

According to the College Board, the goal is for students to be exposed to a comprehensive look at African American history beginning not in the cotton and tobacco fields of the American South, but in Africa. And the College Board wants students not to just study the “sad and hard parts of our history,” as Mr. Cowley framed it, but also “what Black Americans have contributed to our country through art, music, medicine, and science.”

Not one student who I spoke with, white or otherwise, spoke of feeling guilt or anguish over what they were learning. Instead, they said they felt wiser, more empathetic and empowered to do better.

In other words, DeSantis’s fist pounding about “psychological distress” was nothing more than a tiresome burlesque performed for the benefit of fearmongering media and people who believe their kids will wilt like plucked flowers if exposed to difficult historical facts. Or worse yet, people whose vision of America does not include well educated, empowered Black men and women.

For all of DeSantis’s braying against the AP African American Studies course, schools across the country have seen tremendous interest from students in taking the class, and among those in the pilot project, a number of them, many who’d never taken an AP class before, say they now think college could be a possibility.

If Desantis can’t get on board with that idea, I hope the only thing that he will see wilt are his own racist political prospects.

A mix of students is taking Maurice Cowley’s college-level African American Studies class. (Naseem Rakha)

This commentary is republished from the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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Naseem Rakha
Naseem Rakha

Naseem Rakha is a former public radio reporter, news show host and commentator. She is an author of the novel "The Crying Tree," which was inspired by her time covering two executions in Oregon. Naseem spends her time hiking, climbing, rafting and photographing areas throughout the American West.