Florida is threatening to ban the new AP African American Studies class over topics that are optional—and aren’t even part of the curriculum, according to one of the lead architects of the course and a review of the official framework.
On Feb. 1, the beginning of Black History Month, the College Board released the official framework for its first new AP course in nearly a decade, AP African American Studies. As TIME previously reported, the course is being piloted at 60 schools nationwide.
The move comes after the Florida Department of Education informed the College Board in January that it would not approve the curriculum unless certain changes are made. Among the course materials it objected to are references to Black Lives Matter and reparations.
“Those narratives that they were singling out aren’t in the curriculum itself. What they see is buzzwords,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of history and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, tells TIME in an exclusive interview.
According to the official framework, students are not required to know about these topics for the AP exam, but they are listed as examples of possible research topics students may want to pursue. These topics were also optional in a previous version of the framework seen by TIME last summer. However, one notable difference is that previously required course content on intersectionality—studying discrimination through overlapping racial and gender identities—was moved to the optional essay topics section.
Elaborating on the decision in a Jan. 23 press conference, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a former history teacher and college history major, said, “We want education not indoctrination,” arguing that the class is “pushing an agenda on our kids.”
Florida has become a ground zero for the latest front of the culture wars. Last spring, DeSantis signed into law the STOP Woke Act, which aimed to regulate how schools and workplaces talk about race and gender. Though a federal judge blocked a provision aimed at private businesses in November, it’s still had a chilling effect. College professors are opting not to teach classes on racism, and there are restrictions on professional development opportunities for teachers aimed at preventing critical race theory from being taught in K-12 schools (even though it’s rarely taught below the graduate level). While Florida teachers are required to teach African American history, AP African American Studies would offer students a chance to earn college credit. On Jan. 25, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump announced he’s ready to sue DeSantis if the Florida Department of Education, with three AP honors students as lead plaintiffs.
There is an irony in Florida’s blocking an in-depth Black history class from being offered in its schools, given it’s the state where Black history began in America. In 1513, Juan Garrido, a free conquistador from the Kingdom of Kongo, became the first known African to arrive in North America when he explored what’s now Florida via a Spanish expedition. Garrido’s story is in the official framework for AP African American Studies.
To comment on Florida’s criticism of the curriculum, TIME talked to Higginbotham, who—along with Harvard colleague Henry Louis Gates Jr.—was the primary scholar who reviewed the College Board’s course.
In the below conversation, she explains what’s in the course and what’s not in the course.
TIME: What’s your reaction to the Florida Department of Education’s criticisms about the AP African American Studies pilot?
HIGGINBOTHAM: Those narratives that they were singling out aren’t in the curriculum itself. What they see is buzzwords. They are picking on buzzwords that they know will inflame the hearts of some of their constituency. Communism was a buzzword in the 1950s against interracial marriage. If you were interracially married in the South, you became a communist. If people have political reasons for not wanting to see this [course], then no matter what arguments you give them, it won’t matter. So at this point, what I’m just interested in is stating what this course is and what we will do. And it’s exciting.
Governor DeSantis claims AP African American Studies is pushing “queer theory.”
We’re not pushing theory. Those things come up. Theory is replete in academia. Critical race theory built off of critical legal theory. Critical legal theory isn’t Black. Theory is everywhere. You’ve got Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, Einstein’s theory of relativity, bad theorists who are absolutely racist like Morton and Agassiz [who tried to use science to claim Blacks were inferior]. You’ve got religious theories. Theory is a part of higher education. But that’s not what this course is about.
And DeSantis says he wants to focus on American history, focus on the “great figures.”
That’s a very old fashioned way of thinking about history. American history is not the American history of the great white male anymore. America wasn’t made by just simply the people who left their autobiographies, libraries, and manuscript papers in the Library of Congress.
The governor also says AP African American Studies would “indoctrinate” students.
One of our goals is to have students look at topics from a variety of angles. This is the farthest thing from indoctrination. How you look at a subject from different angles is best done through interdisciplinary work. And this is an interdisciplinary course.
The big difference is that when you indoctrinate, you are not seeking a questioning mind. You’re just trying to put an idea into pretty much a blank mind and think that that will be accepted unquestioningly. This is exactly the opposite of what the AP course is doing. The AP course is trying to give a sense of the different ways to talk about a particular topic. And so there’s room for debates on a variety of things.
One of the major points that comes out of this course is that Black people are not a monolith. The people of African descent are themselves of different ethnicities, of different ideologies and political persuasions. They are different as far as income, as far as education. And we’re trying to capture that complexity. There’s certain things that will be similar. But the richness of it is the complexity within a narrative that allows for students to disagree. And we want students to disagree. We want respectful and civil debate.
What are myths or misconceptions about the AP African American Studies pilot that you have found yourself debunking or having to set the record straight on?
Governor DeSantis said [Florida has] Black history, but [AP African American Studies] is a different type of Black history. No. This is a Black history that is based on facts and not theories. It is a Black history that uses primary sources, meaning those records of the times—the newspapers of the time, letters, correspondences, archival records of the times. It means looking at our laws, our Constitution, our judicial decisions. It means reading the Congressional Record. So this isn’t something that is made up.
For many people, the idea of kingdoms in Africa will be shocking because when I was growing up, watching television as a child in the 1950s and early 1960s, there was the portrayal of African people as though they were merely savages. And those kinds of images were everywhere, even children’s games. People of African descent should be understood in a new light.
The biggest misperception is that this is somehow neophyte. African American Studies is over 50 years in the academy. And when it first started in the academy, it started in the white schools. Over 200 primarily white schools had Black studies in one form or another—programs, centers, departments—in 1969. This is not some ghettoized knowledge that will not land you a job.
Am I understanding this correctly from reading the pilot curriculum—that the Governor of the state where Black history in America begins is now trying to ban an in-depth course on African American history?
Yes. Absolutely. Obviously he doesn’t know American history, or Florida history.
The first time Black people came to North America was not in 1619. I have to remind people that when we talk about Jamestown, we’re talking about the British. When we talk about Black people, we’ve got to go into the earlier century—and that earlier century is the story of Florida. That’s one of the ironies of this whole resistance on the part of the governor, because the story of Florida, which was settled by the Spanish, starts in the early 1500s.
Did you know that in 1528, Africans were part of an expedition to settle in an area which would be near present-day Tampa Bay? It’s not until 1565 that St. Augustine is established [in present-day Florida]. Well, St. Augustine is the oldest surviving city in the United States. Enslaved Blacks and some free Blacks were crucial in the building of that city, along with whites, and along with some native indigenous people. Then as early as the early 1700s, St. Augustine develops this Black town called Fort Mose. The Spanish governor of Florida chartered this settlement called Fort Mose. And it was a settlement for free Blacks and also a settlement for slaves of the British that were fleeing to Florida from South Carolina. I would love to see teachers take the students there.
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