Opinion | Rewriting Black history

Published by , Date: February 17, 2023
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Over 1 million students in the United States who graduated in the class of 2021 took at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course examination in their high school careers.

AP curriculum is now mainstream in America’s high schools, allowing difficult and peculiar subjects that normally would only be taught at the university level to be accessible within school walls.

It is easy to see why, then, the creation of a course that teaches African American studies, for which educators and scholars alike have advocated for years, would be cause for celebration.

This is exactly what happened this past August when a draft of the new AP African American studies course curriculum was leaked.

The curriculum, among other things, would tackle historical periods such as the reconstruction and slavery, but also contemporary ones, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and mass incarceration.

Conservative media outlets that obtained the leaked curriculum quickly fired into gear and railed against the course, calling it “leftist radicalism” and saying that this course was “Neo-Marxing the College Board.”

The debate over this course’s implementation took a turn just weeks ago. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis disparaged the curriculum, saying that the class would not be allowed to be taught in Florida’s schools and calling it “historically inaccurate.” The Florida Department of Education said it “lacked educational value.”

The College Board had assured many anxious academics that the course’s content would not change because of attacks on it from DeSantis.

Less than two weeks after the Florida Department of Education rejected the course, the College Board released the official curriculum for AP African American Studies on the first day of Black History Month.

However, when the official curriculum was released, it showed that much of the core material was indeed removed to appease DeSantis and Republican politicians.

The new, stripped-down curriculum eliminated mentions of the Black Lives Matter movement and reparations. It purged any mention of well-respected Black scholars, such as Kimberle Crenshaw, Ta-Nehisi Coates and bell hooks (sic).

However, we need not even go back to DeSantis’ specific comments to understand why the College Board might make such changes.

There has been a dramatic rise in “anti-woke” legislation not only in Florida but across the country. These laws attack ideas, such as anti-racist education, diversity and structural racism. Such laws have been adopted in 28 states and have been introduced in 17 others, including Pennsylvania.

This sort of whitewashing of American history is not a new phenomenon. However, the ongoing campaign to sanitize American history is particularly disturbing.

Sanitizing history allows us to forgo any meaningful discussion about problems that existed during and well-past slavery, the period of reconstruction and the civil rights movement. It teaches the dominant narrative of American history which is one that often de-centers and puts Black Americans on the periphery. When it does focus on their contributions and struggles, it does so in a way that patronizes Black Americans and ignores many of the more radical demands of civil rights leaders.

The dominant narrative of the civil rights movement is one of finality. It is often taught as having a sudden beginning and peaceful, short-lived ending with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Such a narrative gives the U.S. government and white Americans credit for the basic federal protections that Black Americans had been pursuing for decades, if not for more than a century or two. Martin Luther King Jr is now a beloved figure in contemporary American culture, but this narrative does not acknowledge white America’s fear and disdain for King during his time.

Black history (including Black queer and feminist thought) deserve to be taught. The topics of intersectionality, Black queer identity and Black feminists are not a vehicle by which the “woke” left can indoctrinate people.

The reality is that they are foundational ideas derived from the lived experiences of people with complex identities that disrupt the dichotomy of just “white” and “black” created by the dominant historical narrative of white Americans.

The role of slavery in our nation’s founding, the era of racial terror that claimed the lives of thousands, and the contributions of Black Americans are inseparable parts of American history.

These are difficult discussions, indeed, but an honest pursuit of racial justice demands that we have them, including in classrooms, where many of our students learn about Black history in the first place.

The College Board should have remained defiant. The precedent that the decision to strip this course’s material sets is dangerous. It sends a message to Black Americans that their history should be gutted to appease an elected official’s political agenda. The College Board made this decision with their bottom line in mind, not the millions of young Black students who would have benefitted from this curriculum.

Black Americans, especially Black women, Black queer people and other groups whose history is eliminated from the curriculum will not suddenly disappear, but their ability to make connections from their experiences today to the experiences of others like them throughout history has been eliminated.

Students must be able to contextualize their experiences as being part of American history, and perhaps the greatest tragedy of this decision is that many will not be given that opportunity.

These proposals have exacerbated an already hostile environment for educators across the country, who, now amongst an epidemic of gun violence and mental health crises, must also contend with increasing overreach into the lessons they teach.

Whether it be the explicit ban of mentions of queer identity or muzzling what teachers can say about Black history, demagogues such as Ron DeSantis and others like him should not be able to determine which history is valuable enough to teach.

These bans are indeed happening at the state level, but they are occurring at the local and district level as well and closer to Slippery Rock’s backyard than one might expect.

According to CRTForward, a project based out of the law school at the University of California Los Angeles, which tracks the banning and restriction of critical race theory, the 1619 Project and other works, both Grove City College and Butler Area School District have adopted measures to restrict so-called “woke” ideology from being taught.

“’Wokeness’ refers to increased awareness of, and political grievance relating to, alleged racism and inequality,” per Grove City College’s resolution. The wording of this definition plainly states their position: racism and inequality in American society are simply alleged.

The truth is that this new era of academic restriction and censorship has been facilitated by spineless politicians and educators who would rather teach a fictional account of history. These bans stand in direct opposition to the ideals of a free, democratic society. They seek to suppress any challenge to white supremacy and are indeed utilizing the power of the state to accomplish this goal.

Reader, take this as a call to action.

If you can, take a class in African American history, as it may be the most fundamental act of resistance I can offer.

We must work to educate ourselves with an American history that is unsanitized, a history that must be learned to tackle the persistent disparities that exist within American society. If you do not, those attempting to erase this history will make your decision for you.

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