Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gets one thing right about African American Studies: it has a “political agenda.”
There is a heated debate swirling around the new Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies class that Florida has blocked, and that was subsequently revised to reduce feminist, queer, and activist content. But the terms of this debate have largely been determined by Trump-era political patterns: liberals defending facts and truth, right-wing populists like DeSantis charging that the liberal establishment conceals their political ideology with claims to objectivity. Both liberals and their opponents on the right miss what is so powerful about African American Studies: it is a framework for intellectual work oriented by struggle.
AP courses are meant to replace a college-level class. Colleges often offer credit for scoring high marks on the AP exam that tests mastery of AP course material, saving college students money. AP courses also signal that a high school student is motivated and able to complete college-level academic work. For many years there have been AP courses in US history, European history, and world history; there are also AP courses in topics including government, music theory, Latin, and statistics. The idea is for high school teachers to offer a more advanced version of their usual classes, boosted to a college level with help from resources provided by the College Board, the non-profit that administers the AP programs and takes in nearly half a billion dollars a year from them.
When surging racial justice movements put pressure on the College Board to develop a new AP course – or, created a market opportunity for the AP – the organization laudably chose to create an African American Studies class, not an African American history class. Many colleges offer introductory African American Studies classes through programs or departments variously named Africana Studies, Black Studies, or African American Studies, and the new AP class would potentially count for credit in these units.
A Distorted Framework
From the College Board’s perspective, as described in their course framework, what makes African American Studies distinctive is that it is “interdisciplinary.” It approaches African American experience through the several lenses of history, literature, geography, music, and art. Yet the course frameworks disseminated by the College Board a year ago and this month are organized almost exclusively in chronological order. The first unit is about African history before colonization, the second unit is about the slave trade and its opponents, the third unit is about Black American experience from the end of the Civil War to the cusp of the civil rights movement, and the final unit examines the civil rights movement, Black power, and Black feminist movements. Two final weeks explore the contours of contemporary Black life, including religious diversity within Black communities, Black contributions to music, and famous Black scientists.
Almost no high schools currently offer African American Studies classes. The existence of an AP class raises the profile of a subject in high school and puts it on students’ radar as they are choosing classes and their major in college. Yet the new AP course would be unlike AP offerings in other subjects where there is a reservoir of trained high school instructors in those subjects who just need an added boost to bring their existing courses to a college level. In that context, turning an African American Studies class into what is effectively an Black history class was a pragmatic move: history teachers would be comfortable acting as instructors. But this move distorts the significance of African American Studies.
Here is how the College Board’s course framework explains the evolution of the field of African American Studies: “African American studies emerged from Black artistic, intellectual, and political endeavors that predate its formalization as a field of study. In the 21st century, it continues to offer a lens for understanding contemporary Black freedom struggles within and beyond the academy. African American studies remains a primary means to examine the global influence of Black expression and racial inequities. The field establishes frameworks for analyses of Black history, literature, politics, and other subjects not previously included in more traditional disciplines.”
The Real Story
Here is what really happened: In the late 1960s, Black youths and their allies were radicalized by the violent repression of the civil rights movement in the South and by the war in Vietnam. Some were entering college after having spent time immersed in grassroots organizing for Black justice in extremely hostile conditions. These Black youths found colleges that were exploiting Black workers and neighbors, that were systematically devaluing or excluding Black experience, and that allowed anti-Black racism to infest student life.
Students organized. They petitioned, they protested, they were beaten and arrested. Some were expelled, some were deported. Strikes and building occupations shut down campuses; once-placid campus lawns were trod by heavily armed police and were perfumed by tear gas.
Students demanded that colleges create a home on campus for African American Studies, and in some cases the students won. More precisely, what the students demanded was a different sort of academic environment. Black students not only wanted a place to learn about Black experience, they also wanted a place to anchor ongoing political organizing efforts that would hold the university accountable for its anti-Black habits, in perpetuity. Often Black students demanded that African American Studies units formalize a new sort of accountability. Instead of university leaders having the final say, students envisioned boards composed of Black students, Black workers, and members of neighboring Black communities governing these units.
Needless to say, African American Studies units at colleges today do not approach the radical visions articulated by their founders. University leaders control the purse strings, and money shapes institutions. African American Studies units now are rarely hubs of political organizing, they rarely serve as a corrective to the anti-Black habits of their institutions (diversity bureaucrats have stepped in to pretend to fill that role), and it is doubtful that even one African American Studies department retains substantive accountability to local Black communities. And yet African American Studies units do serve a crucial role: their existence commemorates radical student organizing, and their classes, while varying greatly in political orientation, can prime students for further political development and engagement.
An Education in Struggle
In short, what makes African American Studies distinctive is certainly not its interdisciplinarity, and not its interest in bringing overlooked facts about Black life into an academic conversation. African American Studies at its best marks the convergence of anti-racist organizing and ideology critique. In the last decade, this political potentiality has emerged with new force under the sign of “Black study,” although often from scholars and activists outside departments and programs of African American Studies.
An introductory African American Studies course at a college, ideally, would indeed involve approaching history, music, art, and literature, and the contemporary conditions of Black life, but all through the lens of struggle. Each week would be oriented by the analysis of racial domination at a particular site and filled with stories of struggle against that domination. It would, without doubt, have a “political agenda.”
It is not only the College Board that forgets its new course is supposed to be about African American Studies. Nearly all public discourse about AP African American Studies describes it as a Black history class. Florida officials point out that they already require teaching Black history in schools, and DeSantis claims that the AP class is trying to “shoehorn” controversial theories into a history class. White House Spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre described the class as one intended “for high-achieving high school students to learn about their history.” National Public Radio headlined their coverage with a reference to “AP Black history,” and many other media outlets made the same slip.
Here we can see the futility of liberal responses to the controversies manufactured by right-wing populists. Liberals present themselves as solely interested in putting more facts out there for high school students to absorb so that they can rightly understand the complexity of the American story. Too many facts about Black history might make DeSantis and his cronies uncomfortable, but it is something they can manage. They can shape facts into a narrative: after all, Florida schools do require the teaching of Black history already. After all, it was Ronald Reagan who made Martin Luther King, Jr., Day into a federal holiday. Conservatives have adapted to the era of multiculturalism. What they cannot stomach are theories that link anti-racist struggles of the past with anti-racist struggles of the present – this they dismiss as “critical race theory,” and this is where they find a “political agenda” tainting the AP African American Studies course. And this is precisely the heart of African American Studies.