Social Studies

What Will Be Taught in College Board’s AP African American Studies? Here’s a Sample

By Ileana Najarro — February 03, 2023 9 min read
Emmitt Glynn teaches AP African American studies to a group of Baton Rouge Magnet High School students on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023 in Baton Rouge, La. Baton Rouge Magnet High School in Louisiana is one of 60 schools around the country testing the new course, which has gained national attention since it was banned in Florida.
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There’s been much talk this week about the topics and scholars excluded from the final framework for the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course offered by the College Board. But what, exactly, remains to be taught in the course as listed in the framework published on Feb. 1?

The wide-ranging interdisciplinary course—which is currently in a pilot run at about 60 schools across the country—is meant to offer high school students an opportunity to dive deeper into African American history.

It also offers students a chance to earn college credits depending on how they perform in the course exam. It will be available to all schools nationally in the 2024-25 school year.

The course is divided into four units, each with required primary sources to review and topics to cover. Each topic comes with learning objectives and essential knowledge statements, or content knowledge required to demonstrate mastery of the learning objective.

There is also a student-led research project for which students must write an essay on the topic of their choosing.

The course exam involves 60 multiple-choice questions and four free-response questions. The final score from 1-5 includes a grade given for the student project, which is to be turned in prior to the exam.

To get a better sense of what all gets covered in the course, as it stands now, Education Week put together a sample of required topics and primary sources.

But first, some context.

Why is there public outcry over the new course?

Weeks before the College Board published the final course framework, Florida education officials banned the course for lacking “educational value and historical accuracy” and for allegedly defying state law, later citing specific concerns with topics and scholars listed in a pilot draft. (Florida is one of 18 states with legislation or policy in place restricting how topics of race and racism are taught in schools.)

When The New York Times reported on Feb. 1 that the final framework cut required topics and scholars that Florida officials objected to, some accused the College Board of making edits to appease Florida officials.

“The College Board has claimed that these changes are pedagogical, not political,” said Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization.

“Maybe so. But the College Board must be aware that in the context of Florida leaders’ comments, the changes risk sending the message that political threats against the teaching of particular types of content can succeed in silencing that content.”

The College Board has reiterated that no state influenced the final content of the course and that “core revisions were substantially complete—including the removal of all secondary sources—by December 22, weeks before Florida’s objections were shared.”

The final framework now offers a standard introduction to African American Studies, not unlike introductory courses taught in college back in the 1990s, said Abul Pitre, chair of the department of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University.

“As a general overview for students in high school, I think it’s a really good starting point,” Pitre said.

Pitre does see missed opportunities in the final version to more explicitly draw connections between how the past relates to the present and build up students’ critical consciousness—or the ability to question how and why power dynamics work the way they do. Yet he is hopeful that the course will expand in later years to include more contemporary scholars and movements, as well as a wider array of voices from the past.

These are the required topics for AP African American Studies

Unit 1: Origins of the African Diaspora

This unit focuses on:

  • Introduction to African American Studies
  • The Strength and Complexity of Early African Societies
  • Early West African Empires
  • Early African Kingdoms and City-States
  • Early Africa and Global Politics

The first learning objective for this unit is to have students be able to “describe the features that characterize African American studies.” A primary source for that includes the poem “Outcast” by Claude McKay.

One of the essential knowledge statements in this unit is: “Interdisciplinary analysis in African American studies dispels notions of Africa as a place with an undocumented or unknowable history, affirming early Africa as a diverse continent with complex societies that were globally connected well before the onset of the Atlantic slave trade.”

Pitre said he would have liked the overview of African American studies in this unit to name and include more voices from the founders of the field of study.

Another learning objective is to have students be able to “explain how syncretic practices in early West African societies developed and were carried forward in African-descended communities in the Americas.”

Unit 2: Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance

This unit, the longest one, focuses on:

  • Atlantic Africans and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
  • From Capture to Sale: The Middle Passage
  • Slavery, Labor, and American Law
  • Culture and Community
  • Radical Resistance and Revolt
  • Resistance Strategies, Part 1
  • Resistance Strategies, Part 2
  • Abolition and the War for Freedom

Primary source documents in this unit range from Phillis Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to excerpts from South Carolina and Louisiana slave codes of 1740 and 1724, respectively.

One specific topic in this unit focuses on the concept of race, including an essential knowledge statement saying: “The concept of race is not based in clear biological distinctions, as more genetic difference and variation appears within racial groups than between racial groups. Concepts and classifications of racial types emerged in tandem with systems of enslavement.”

In particular, this unit contains the learning objective of: “Explain how partus sequitur ventrem impacted African American families and informed the emergence of racial taxonomies in the United States.” The framework explains that partus sequitur ventrem is a 17th-century law that “defined a child’s legal status based on the status of its mother and held significant consequences for enslaved African Americans.”

It also explores rebellions and resistance movements such as the Haitian Revolution and a learning objective of “describe the techniques used by Black women activists to advocate for social justice and reform” in the 19th century.

Unit 3: The Practice of Freedom

This unit focuses on:

  • Reconstruction and Black Politics
  • The Color Line: Black Life in the Nadir
  • Racial Uplift
  • The New Negro Renaissance
  • Migrations and Black Internationalism

In the section on the Reconstruction era, this unit explores how during the late 19th century “African Americans were endangered by acts of racial violence (e.g., lynching) and retaliation from former Confederates, political terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and others who embraced white supremacist doctrine.”

It goes on to explore how “between 1917 and 1921 there was a proliferation of racial violence incited by white supremacists. The acute period of tensions in 1919 is known as the ‘Red Summer.’” It also features the Tulsa race massacre as an essential knowledge point.

One of the learning objectives is to “describe the mission and methods of the Universal Negro Improvement Association” and it dives into primary documents such as photos of and writing by the association’s founder, Marcus Garvey.

Pitre was surprised to see any mention of Garvey because he was, in some cases, a precursor to Elijah Muhammad, a leader of the Nation of Islam, and he is not often a figure covered in high school courses.

This unit also explores how “Black women promoted the advancement of African Americans” in the early 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the origins of Historically Black Universities and Colleges.

Pitre said he would have preferred that the sections on HBCUs be expanded to discuss the ripple effect integration in the 1960s had on enrollment in these schools. As it stands, the framework covers these institutions up to that time, though it does ask that students “explain how the creation of HBCUs in the United States impacted the educational and professional lives of African Americans nationally and internationally.”

Unit 4: Movements and Debates

The unit, the one closest to covering contemporary figures and events, focuses on:

  • Anticolonial Movements and the Early Black Freedom Movement
  • The Long Civil Rights Movement
  • Black Power and Black Pride
  • Black Women’s Voices in Society and Leadership
  • Diversity Within Black Communities
  • Identity, Culture, and Connection

This unit includes a section on the G.I. Bill and redlining with an essential knowledge statement saying, “The G.I. Bill’s funds were administered locally and subject to Jim Crow discriminatory practices, and as a result, they were often disproportionately disbursed to White veterans.”

It also states: “Throughout the mid-20th century, mortgage lenders practiced redlining—the discriminatory practice of withholding mortgages to African Americans and other people of color within a defined geographical area under the pretense of ‘hazardous’ financial risk posed by those communities.”

In a later section, this unit also states: “Despite the growth of the Black middle class, substantial disparities in wealth along racial lines remain. Discrimination and racial disparities in housing and employment stemming from the early 20th century limited Black communities’ accumulation of generational wealth in the second half of the 20th century. In 2016, the median wealth for Black families was $17,150 compared to $171,000 for Whites.”

It explores the civil rights movement, including the roles faith, music, and the arts played.

It includes sections on the Black Panther Party; Black Is Beautiful and the Black Arts Movement; Black Women and Movements in the 20th Century (with Toni Morrison’s “What the Black Woman Thinks About Women’s Lib” as a primary source); Black Achievements in Science, Medicine, and Technology; and an exploration of Afrofuturism as “a cultural, aesthetic and political movement that blends Black experiences from the past with Afrocentric visions of a technologically advanced future that includes data science, forecasting, and AI.”

A primary source includes a video called “Let’s Talk about ‘Black Panther’ and Afrofuturism” referring to the 2018 Marvel superhero film.

In the section on the evolution of African American music, Pitre would have wanted a deeper dive into hip hop in particular. For instance, requiring students to deconstruct what hip hop means today from its origins tied to Black consciousness; then discussing how commercialized it has become and why.

He also would have wanted to see more Black athletes in the framework overall as part of its coverage of activism and advocacy—the likes of Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick, for instance.

In general, Black athletes and other non-required topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement; Gay life and expression in Black communities; and Black thought leaders: writings, contributions, and impact are all listed as possible research project topics. They are subject to refining by states and districts.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Will Be Taught in College Board’s AP African American Studies? Here’s a Sample

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