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How AP African American Studies Works in a State That Limits Teaching About Race

In the classroom of teacher Ahenewa El-Amin at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., where murals of books and the words “read” and “think” decorate the walls, junior Nia Henderson-Louis held up a handmade diorama depicting the founders of the oldest historically Black sorority, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

The College Board’s new Advanced Placement African American Studies course requires instruction on the history of historically Black colleges and universities and affiliated Black Greek-letter organizations. For the pilot version of the course currently offered at Henry Clay, El-Amin had her students craft their own presentations on these organizations.

Nia, 17, spoke about Alpha Kappa Alpha traditions in the context of the Divine Nine historically Black fraternities and sororities. She shared how her mother “crossed the line” as a college student.

“I need you to just help me out for next year,” El-Amin said before Nia continued. “I’m going to need to teach this again, so what does it mean to cross the line?”

“Cross the line means that you’re officially coming into the sorority as a sister,” Nia said. “So you’re crossing the line of being just outside of the sorority and trying to make it in, and you finally make it in.”

El-Amin asked her class, which is predominantly Black, if predominantly white sororities also participated in the tradition of crossing the line. A white student mentioned that such organizations are better known for a “rush week” when new members try to join.

Making cross-cultural connections, maintaining a classroom culture where asking questions and sharing feedback is always encouraged, and developing critical thinking skills are all benefits El-Amin and her students see in the AP African American Studies course set to officially launch nationwide this fall after two years of pilot classes in a select number of schools.

The course faced a tumultuous start when in 2023 Florida officials banned the pilot for allegedly violating state law that restricts instruction about race. Seventeen other states have imposed such restrictions since January 2021—including Kentucky, which has a Republican-controlled statehouse and Democratic governor. (In Arkansas, with similar restrictions, state officials moved to not allow the course to count for high school graduation credit.)

As schools across the country face the option of offering the official course this fall while instruction about race and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives continue to come under political fire from Republicans, El-Amin’s class offers a glimpse of how it all can work.

A groundbreaking course in a complicated political climate

Henry Clay is the only one of the Fayette County district’s six high schools that’s currently offering the course. Four other schools in Kentucky are also participating in the course’s second-year pilot, according to the College Board.

Students in the course this year will be the first to take an end-of-year exam. Schools requested more than 11,900 exams for the course in November 2023.

“For years, African American Studies has been one of the most widely requested additions to the AP Program, and we know students across the country are eager to take this course,” Brandi Waters, senior director and program manager for AP African American Studies, said in a statement. “My priority is making the course available to as many students as possible.”

One potential challenge to accessing the course lies in legislation in at least 18 states restricting instruction on race. In Kentucky, a 2022 bill that initially drew a veto from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, which the Republican-dominated legislature then overturned, sets parameters on how to teach about race in K-12 schools. That includes stating that “the institution of slavery and post-Civil War laws enforcing racial segregation and discrimination were contrary to the fundamental American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, but that defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of this institution is destructive to the unification of our nation.”

Chaka Cummings, executive director for the Association for Teaching Black History in Kentucky, said that he would imagine if the AP African American Studies pilot were offered in 2018, more schools in the state would have tried to participate because they would not have been concerned over how the course would work with the legal restriction.

The state association officially launched in 2023 to help schools and partners such as the state department of education share resources and training for teachers seeking to teach more Black history, Cummings said. It all started as a response to racial tension in the state in 2020 over issues such as police brutality, including the case of Breonna Taylor, whom Louisville, Ky. police officers shot and killed in her home on March 13, 2020.

As the association and others work to expand and improve Black history instruction across the state outside of the AP course, Cummings sees the AP course as validating and adding to his group’s work.

“It gives credence within spaces that maybe haven’t spent a ton of time figuring out how to effectively teach Black history,” he said.

Though there were national debates at the pilot’s launch among Black scholars over whether the survey course truly addressed all necessary topics, Cummings argues that “you have to balance the current political landscape with this opportunity to be able to introduce lessons and coursework and curriculum in an area where many schools are lagging.

“And so within that balance, hopefully, this course feels like something that can address what is an opportunity area for a lot of districts across the United States.”

The Kentucky and classroom landscape

Some Kentucky state leaders and educators see great potential for the course within the state, even under the state’s current political context.

“There is no legislation, no bill out there banning African American history” in the state, said Thomas S. Tucker, who was hired to be the Kentucky department of education’s deputy commissioner and chief equity officer. “That’s not on the table. I’ve not had any conversation with any of our lawmakers discussing that.”

When asked whether teachers could teach AP African American Studies in full in Kentucky under state law, he said “I don’t see any prohibitions with this.”

“[The course] goes deeper than just having Black history in Kentucky academic standards in social studies,” Tucker said. “Its goal is really to help American public school kids, and our private school kids as well, develop a greater respect for each other.”

Tucker said he isn’t aware of any complaints in the state against the course. He’s only gotten one question from local scholars: why there aren’t more Black Kentuckians featured in the course given their contributions to American history.

Another challenge in getting the course into more schools, Cummings said, maybe teachers who may feel they lack the training to properly teach the course.

El-Amin at Henry Clay, who is Black, said she is focusing on developing a course where teachers of any race feel comfortable navigating hard conversations in the classroom as she does. Her class this year was predominantly Black. The cohort of students already expressing interest in the course next fall is predominantly white, meaning she may need to help students make more connections to history and culture with which they are not as familiar.

Though fellow teachers at Henry Clay—and an online community of AP African American Studies teachers—offer El-Amin support and guidance, navigating an interdisciplinary course that’s very new and covers a lot of material in a short timeframe has still proved challenging.

That’s why she looks to students and families to guide her.

A class where students are the experts

She’s constantly asking students for their feedback.

“I am very open about the fact that I’m fumbling my way through this course,” El-Amin said. “I learn and they teach me.”

For instance, she was raised Muslim and was not familiar with the musical tradition of call and response in Black churches, which one of the course units covers. Her students quickly filled her in—though not without some good-natured teasing.

At the end of presentations on the Divine Nine historically Black fraternities and sororities, El-Amin reminded students that the various PowerPoint slides, dioramas, and other crafts they put together will serve as examples for future classes.

When the class was learning about ancient African kingdoms early in the course, El-Amin had students make ceremonial masks that now decorate a wall by her desk. Through that activity, students learned about how much effort went into constructing such artifacts and, as a result, gained a deeper appreciation for the course material.

“You all did a great job at being experts,” El-Amin said of their Divine Nine presentations. “But what went right and what went wrong, if I had to do this assignment again next year?”

Student presentations this school year have covered a wide range of topics, from government surveillance of Black civil rights leaders to Black comedians to white artists whom people think are Black.

Students once watched an episode of the sitcom “black-ish” and made Black Santas when learning about Black Christmas to lighten the mood from covering heavy subject matter.

Parents have also provided El-Amin with feedback.

Nia’s parents teach Africana studies, anthropology, political science, and gender and women’s studies at a local university. They’ve helped El-Amin ensure she’s on track with her lesson plans and offered suggestions for resources.

El-Amin recommends that future teachers of the course at her school and beyond “try to have a bridge between some of the universities and the schools because these curriculums seem to be rooted in what you need to know at the next level for college.”

For El-Amin, the course pushes students to think critically about the world around them and their own lived experiences by drawing connections between the past and present and learning how to engage with other cultures.

“Thinking is revolutionary in itself,” she said.

At the end of the class period featuring Divine Nine presentations, students whose presentations had included step-dance routines led their peers in a mini-step lesson. They even convinced El-Amin to join.

In the hallway just outside the dancing classroom, a poster advertising the course formally launching this fall summarized the challenge that lies ahead: “History is not always pretty. Can you handle the truth?”

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