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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Educators, We Must Defend AP African American Studies

Florida teachers, we can’t let our schools be “the place where woke goes to die”
By Monika Williams Shealey — February 02, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of many hands are raised against a giant hand stopping them
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Dear Florida Educators,

When I was growing up in Florida and I would hear church folks describe a troubling event that ran afoul of their moral compass, they would say, “it’s just not sitting right with my spirit.” That’s how I’ve been feeling lately when I hear about recent efforts in my home state of Florida to limit academic freedom in higher education; stifle intellectual curiosity in schools; ban books; obliterate diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in higher education; and silence the questions of pre-K-12 learners who may be struggling with their gender identity and sexuality.

I was educated in public pre-K-12 schools and graduated from three major Florida universities with my undergraduate and graduate degrees in the area of special education. I’m a former special education teacher who worked in Pinellas, Seminole, and Miami-Dade counties and was a tenure-track faculty member at Florida International University. Yet today, when I think about the education landscape in my home state, I’m grieved that instead of being lauded as a leader in innovation and delivering high-quality, equitable educational opportunities to all learners, Florida is applauded by its governor as “the place where woke goes to die.”

I don’t want to spend time debating how terms like “woke” and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” have been appropriated and weaponized to silence the voices of marginalized folks in this country who continue to experience bias, harassment, and discrimination as a result of their identities. I will just say that you, my fellow educators, are on the front lines, serving students from diverse backgrounds and experiences. I can’t imagine the pressures you may be facing from the state education agency, governing boards, and some community members that are distracting you from your primary purpose, to educate.

There was a time when many in our broader community believed that education should focus solely on developing skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. We now know that specific skill development is only one component of education. The needs of our global society demand that we also facilitate broad-based knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, creativity, intellectual curiosity, and acceptance of self and others as cultural beings.

It is not lost on me that as many of us tune in to watch “The 1619 Project” television series, based on the bestselling book by Nikole Hannah-Jones, our state has decided not to offer Advanced Placement African American Studies in high schools. Admittedly, when I saw the headline “DeSantis Sparks Outrage With Rejection of African American Studies Classflash across my social media feed, I can’t say that I was surprised. This latest political stunt, which I believe is rooted in anti-Blackness and anti-intellectualism, has particularly not been sitting right with my spirit.

I’ve heard some of the responses from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office defending the ban. Officials at the Florida Department of Education claim the course is historically inaccurate and contrary to the new Florida law prohibiting “indoctrination” in public schools. The governor has said that including theoretical frameworks such as critical race theory and Black queer theory, which are used to analyze or make sense of the history, is “pushing an agenda on our kids.”

To me, this means that DeSantis believes African American history should offer events without context and without the opportunity to examine the events from multiple vantage points. I have a vivid memory of sitting in my AP U.S. History class. When the topic of slavery came up, I would hold my head down and pray that my white teacher would not ask me and the other handful of Black students in the class to offer expert opinion on the topic. My teacher was well meaning but not equipped to lead a discussion about slavery that would leave me as a Black student feeling whole at the end of the lesson and my white counterparts understanding how the legacy of slavery influences every aspect of our society today.

If we had a resource like the 1619 project in my AP class or I had the chance to take the proposed AP African American studies course, I would have known that the story of Africans in the United States didn’t begin with slavery. I would have known when I taught in urban, rural, and suburban schools and found that my special education classes were always filled with African American boys, it wasn’t because they were “bad,” “unintelligent,” or came from “broken homes.”

Theoretical frameworks like critical race theory create a space to listen to the voices of diverse communities and provide an opportunity to question, challenge, and draw conclusions about the past, present, and future.

The argument that CRT and DEI teach children to hate their country and hate each other is categorically false. As an educator, I struggle with the simplicity of the talking points spouted by those who count on the public not questioning why talking about race translates to promoting hate.

What if education professional organizations decided not to hold their annual meetings and conferences in states where their members are being silenced, attacked, and treated as criminals for providing multiethnic literature in their classroom libraries?

What if educators offered teach-ins where they taught demonstration lessons that acknowledged historical truths from diverse vantage points and helped learners to critically examine how understanding history, no matter how painful, can help to bring about positive change?

What if educators urged our legislators to adopt legislation that solidifies the state’s commitment to giving teachers the freedom and support they need to address important but controversial issues? Or that protected thoughtful DEI efforts in pre-K-12 schools and higher education institutions?

What if DEI professionals in pre-K-12 schools and higher education institutions developed informational guides and social media promotions that demonstrated that DEI is not code for “let’s divide our society by focusing on race.” When we eliminate DEI programs, we are undercutting services and resources that touch so many of our students who face untold challenges—the challenges we know about and the challenges that we don’t.

Colleagues in Florida, I urge you to speak out. I don’t underestimate the cost. There is no safe space for educators. We must seek courage over safety. Today, it’s Florida. Tomorrow, it could be another state.

No one will save us. We must save ourselves.

Sincerely,

A Former Florida Educator

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2023 edition of Education Week as Educators, We Must Defend AP African American Studies

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