Inside the African American studies class praised by some and fiercely opposed by others

The school year is coming to a close and with it, the first year of Advanced Placement African American studies, an interdisciplinary class by the College Board that has attracted praise from professors and also fierce opposition from some Republican politicians. Laura Barrón-López spoke with educators, students and experts to understand the potential and the politics behind the course.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The school year is coming to a close and, with it, the first year of Advanced Placement African American studies, an interdisciplinary class by the College Board that's attracted praise by professors and also fierce opposition from some Republican politicians.

    Laura is back now with a look inside one school, where she spoke with educators, students and experts.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    At Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, California, students file into Tony Green's classroom papered with imagery of civil rights and the Black power movement.

  • Tony Green, Teacher, Bishop O’Dowd High School:

    All right, so, you guys, take out your notebooks.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    This is Advanced Placement African American studies, a new pilot course.

  • Tony Green:

    The reason for this migration, so the furthest map to your right, OK, that's a map of all the lynchings that had taken place, OK, in the South.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    It's a curriculum that drew national media attention, when, 3,000 miles away in Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis called it indoctrination and banned it from Florida schools.

    Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Presidential Candidate: That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    But, in Oakland, juniors and seniors enrolled in the class don't see it that way.

  • Leila Ismail, Student:

    I feel like it's very important as a person to know where your people came from and what they went through. And that isn't something that I found has been centered very much in other history courses I have taken.

  • David Greene, Student:

    The content of basic African American history content, they cover Martin Luther King, they cover Malcolm X, they cover the transatlantic slave trade, and then they end it right there, and they basically say, OK, if you cover these three pillars, we're basically done.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Instead, this four-part curriculum spans centuries, from ancient African kingdoms to the transatlantic slave trade, Reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance, and modern civil rights movements.

  • Tony Green:

    I believe the — probably, the primary thing that the students have taken away from the course is the level of leadership, intelligence and competence that people of African descent actually experienced during the history that we study.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Do you think that this course is political?

  • Tony Green:

    I don't think the course is political at all, any more or any less than American history is political.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    For Green, it's the capstone of more than 30 years teaching African American studies at this private Catholic school.

  • Tony Green:

    So, this book here, "The Mis-Education of the Negro," is the book that everybody starts with, because he talks at the turn of the century about how the study of African people and their descent is never covered, so we're totally miseducated about who we are.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Texts like these are under threat in a national Republican campaign attacking books and teachings about race and LGBTQ identity.

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis:

    Education, not indoctrination.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    It took root in Florida, where DeSantis, now a presidential contender, signed legislation to dictate how Black history is taught in the state.

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis:

    If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley. Now, who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory?

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Backing the effort is Moms for Liberty, a national organization challenging hundreds of books across the country.

    Jennifer Pippin, Moms for Liberty: We challenged to date 252 library books.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Jennifer Pippin is a founding chair of the group in Florida's Indian River County. She supported changing the AP curriculum.

  • Jennifer Pippin:

    And when they polled that AP American history course, they saw that there was a lot of Critical Race Theory and also queer studies in there that had nothing to do with the African American teachings that were offered in the course.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    She claimed the course lacked objectivity.

  • Jennifer Pippin:

    Look at both sides and let's have critical thinking with this. So what they were discussing was with the Black Lives Matter movement, where is the opposition? Where is the opposition? Is there a white lives matter movement?

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Since Florida's announcement, four other Republican-led states launched similar investigations into the class, which Green said does not teach Critical Race Theory or queer theory. It does teach about queer activists, like James Baldwin, who Willie Rogers calls a personal hero.

    Rogers chose Baldwin as a subject for his final research project. As a singer, songwriter and music producer, he grew up admiring Baldwin's creative struggle. His mom, Adrienne, said she's seen a change in her son, including an interest in attending a historically Black college in the fall.

  • Adrienne Rogers, Parent:

    I have just seen a lot of growth. He was actually learning, and he was enjoying learning.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    They said attacks on the AP class are misguided.

  • Adrienne Rogers:

    They're thinking that, if you learn about Black history, that it might be teaching some people to be anti other races. And it's not.

  • Willie Rogers, Student:

    To me, it just shows a lack of understanding for our culture and for the importance of having different perspectives in our history, the same way you have different perspectives in American history.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Growing up in Oakland is to be surrounded by that history. And students got the chance to see it up close. They tasted gumbo, a dish born in West Africa, passed down by enslaved people and brought West.

    They took a field trip to study housing discrimination and redlining in the city, visiting the birthplace of the Black Panther Party and historic Black-owned businesses like this diner. It's been eye-opening for junior Bella Makeig, who is worried about the censorship movement championed by DeSantis.

  • Bella Makeig, Student:

    I'm learning much. And, honestly, it feels like it's been covered up. And I think a lot of it has on purpose. And I think that he wants to continue that and keep people ignorant. And I think this class is not helping him push his agenda, and that's why he's trying to silence this class.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    You think he's trying to cover up this particular history, Black history?

  • Bella Makeig:

    Yes, I do.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    The original curriculum given to Green and the other pilot teachers at the start of the school year has since been revised, but Florida has not reversed its decision. Green stands behind the original framework.

  • Tony Green:

    It's revolutionary, engaging and vitally important, especially in this day and age.

    Social divisions have been a part of the entire colonial experience. Social divisions have been a part of slavery, right, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, right, the Black Codes, civil rights movement. So why would we possibly think that things would be any different right now, unless we work on erasing those social divisions? And the only way to do that is through education.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    What does it feel like as a Black man to be able to teach this course?

  • Tony Green:

    A lot of pride that we have come this far. We struggle. We still got a lot longer to go, but a lot of pride.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    More students will have the chance to enroll in AP African American studies this fall, as it expands from 60 schools this year to more than 800.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Laura Barron-Lopez in Oakland, California.

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