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African-American History Finally Gets Its Own AP Class

'Nothing is more dramatic than having the College Board launch an AP course in a field,' says Henry Louis Gates Jr., who helped develop the curriculum.

On the first day of one of the first AP African American Studies classes ever taught, Marlon Williams-Clark rattled off a list of Black luminaries to see how many his students had heard of.

Only one of the high-schoolers in the majority-Black Tallahassee, Fla., class, which kicked off this month, recognized Thurgood Marshall, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice. And he got no reaction to Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Everyone recognized Maya Angelou, but most hadn’t heard of Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston.

Williams-Clark is teaching at one of 60 schools nationwide piloting AP African American Studies this year. The course will be the College Board’s 40th Advanced Placement course, and the first new AP course since 2014. Next year, students will officially be able to take the class to earn college credit at about 35 colleges, from Virginia Tech to Tuskegee University.

Yet the pilot program arrives at a time when lessons on the Black American and African diaspora experience are at the center of a nationwide debate. Teachers are being accused of teaching “critical race theory,” a decades-old academic framework that in fact is rarely taught below the graduate level. Among scholars, CRT is a way to look at how legal systems and other institutions perpetuate racism and exclusion. But in the popular imagination of the past several years, it has become a byword for anything to do with teaching the history of racism in America.

At least 19 states have passed laws or rules aimed at regulating how race is talked about in the classroom. State lawmakers have been pushing to ban the teaching of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a multimedia series that examines U.S. history through the lens of the Black experience, beginning in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were sent to Virginia. And the American Library Association has been seeing an unprecedented amount of attempts to ban books in school libraries, mostly about topics in Black history by Black and minority authors, like Toni Morrison.

In fact, Williams-Clark, who teaches African American History at the Florida State University Schools, guesses those bans may have something to do with Morrison’s lack of name recognition in his classroom. He and his students, even as they embark on the College Board’s curriculum, find themselves at the crossroads of a culture war. “I live in Florida,” he says, “so I had to let them know that I have to be careful about how I might phrase some things or some of the topics that we may learn about.”