Elizabeth Catlett, “Glory” (1981). Catlett's work is part of the new AP African American Studies course curriculum. (photo Sarah E. Bond/Hyperallergic)

Ahead of the 2022–2023 school year, the College Board rolled out a pilot version of its new Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course. The class had been in the works for over a decade, and this pilot version is currently offered to students at only 60 high schools across the country. Last week, the College Board announced an updated official curriculum framework in advance of the course’s expansion into hundreds more schools that some critics say is missing a host of important artists, writers, and concepts.

A few glaring omissions include a number of influential Black scholars and authors, among them Kimberlé Crenshaw, a pioneer of critical race theory; Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose writing explores systemic racism and white supremacy and who popularized the idea of reparations; and the late bell hooks, whose body of work considers race, class, feminism, and queerness. Contemporary topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement and criminal justice were omitted from the regular curriculum and included in a list of “Sample Project Topics.” Critical race theory, which has been limited by conservative lawmakers in 18 states, is conspicuously absent, as are many contemporary and living Black visual artists.

At the end of each unit, the College Board includes “source materials,” and while the first half of the framework includes African art and elements of visual history relating to colonization and slavery, these are gradually replaced by photographs and works of literature. The contemporary artworks that are included seem to offer meditations on the past rather than contemplations of Black life or examinations of systemic racism today. One of the few contemporary artworks, for example, is Bisa Butler’s 2021 painting “I Go To Prepare A Place For You,” a stylized portrait of Harriet Tubman.

The course’s most in-depth art historical topics examine 20th-century artworks. A unit titled “Photography and Social Change” considers W. E. B. Du Bois’s exhibition American Negro at the 1900 Paris Exposition and James Van Der Zee’s Portfolio of Eighteen Photographs, 1905-38, two bodies of work that employed images of largely affluent Black people in an effort to counter racist stereotypes. Other cultural and art historical sections include segments dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance, the 1960s Black Is Beautiful movement (including a work by Elizabeth Catlett), the Black Arts movements, Afrofuturism, and the evolution of African-American music. Another covered topic is the Négritude movement, in which the works of visual artists Wifredo Lam and Loïs Mailou Jones are listed as source materials.

Kelli Morgan, the director of curatorial studies at Tufts University, whose work focuses on anti-Blackness and anti-racism in the museum field, pointed to a handful of successful living Black artists whose work is not — and she says should be — included in the framework: Firelei Báez, Titus Kaphar, Harmonia Rosales, Alison Saar, and Renée Green among them. (Morgan is a recipient of Hyperallergic’s 2022–23 Emily Hall Tremaine Fellowship for Curators.)

Morgan, however, told Hyperallergic she was not surprised at the College Board’s amendments.

“I feel like we’re in this moment where White, capitalist, patriarchal supremacy is on its last legs — it kind of sees its own demise,” Morgan said. “So anything or anybody — Black scholars, Black authors, Black artists — who are producing work that not only demonstrates the dysfunctionality of White supremacist patriarchal capitalism but offers other options … There’s no way that’s gonna be handed to Black teenagers in high school.”

Morgan also spoke to the histories of African American Studies and Art Histories, stating that part of the reason she entered her line of work (which lies at the intersection of the two fields) is that Art History was behind the curve when it came to examining Black and African diaspora work, and African American Studies lagged behind in examining visual art at all.

“Music’s there, history and politics are there, but in terms of visual art, it was really small,” Morgan said.

An equestrian figure from 13th-15th century Mali is included in the source material. (photo by Franko Khoury, courtesy Smithsonian Institution via Wikimedia)

The new framework also elicited speculation that the College Board edited its course in response to Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s denunciation of it. (The College Board did not publish the 2022–2023 curriculum, but a draft was leaked to conservative news outlets.)

In a January 12 letter announcing his rejection of the AP African American Studies class, DeSantis stated that the course “significantly lacks educational value” and accused the curriculum of being “contrary to Florida law.” (The governor crafted a legal framework limiting how race can be discussed in Florida schools and banned teaching critical race theory in his state.)

“In the future, should College Board be willing to come back to the table with lawful, historically accurate content, FDOE will always be willing to reopen the discussion,” DeSantis wrote.

A little over two weeks later, on February 1, the College Board announced its updated curriculum. The New York Times published an article accusing the College Board of stripping more radical ideas from its framework in response to DeSantis’s criticisms, an allegation the organization vehemently denied in a response to the story. Jeremy C. Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at advocacy nonprofit PEN America, issued a damning statement on the College Board’s revisions, writing that the changes “appear to be an effort to dilute the curriculum, a capitulation to education censors for political expediency” and warning that the decision “risks empowering [De Santis’s] attempts to exert ideological control over the freedom to learn.”

More radical concepts exist at the end of the framework in a list of suggested project topics, alongside the sole mention of Black Lives Matter. Some include “Intersectionality and the dimensions of Black experiences,” “Gay life and expression in Black communities,” “The legacy of redlining,” and “Crime, criminal justice, and incarceration.” This is notably the only mention of criminal justice or incarceration in the curriculum, despite the fact that racial disparity in US prisons is a key issue of contemporary movements for justice and equity.

In an interview with NPR in light of the backlash, College Board CEO David Coleman explained that these changes began being discussed in September and were finalized in December.

“We took out all secondary sources, whether it was by Skip Gates or Evelyn Higginbotham, regardless of their political qualities,” Coleman said in response to specific criticism of the removal of thinkers such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks.

The College Board’s director of the AP African American Studies course Brandi Waters emphasized that the framework had been “streamlined” to focus on primary sources. “These primary sources based on everyday life is what really opens up students’ understanding for bigger concepts and theories,” Waters stated.

The curriculum ends with two segments titled “Diversity Within Black Communities” and “Identity, Culture, and Connection,” sections which include topics such as “Black Political Gains” (it lists figures such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Kamala Harris) and “Black Achievements in Science, Medicine, and Technology.” The last area of focus in the course is contemporary Afrofuturism, which the College Board defines 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.” The original Black Panther (1997) is listed alongside authors Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler and musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Janelle Monáe, Missy Elliot, and OutKast, but visual art is absent from this section.

“One thing I love about art is how wonderful it can be to have a mind that literally is trying to create something that doesn’t exist,” Morgan said. “We have to be able to see the possibility of beginning to be able to do what we want to do – being able to create the things we love or that we think of or that we conceptualize, within a system that is designed literally for us to die.”

“Seeing Black artists, especially these days at the level that is being done, is vital,” Morgan continued. “It’s beyond critical. It’s so vital to put that there.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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