The Real Issue with AP African American Studies

AP African American Studies is a much needed study of Black culture in the United States over a period of more than 400 years. It is an interdisciplinary survey offered to high school students, covering literature, the arts and humanities, politics, economics, geography and STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The overarching goal, according to the College Board who designs AP courses, is “to explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans.” Like all AP courses, it is considered to be a comprehensive and serious introduction to the type of coursework and critical thinking that is typical in colleges and universities. The AP African American Studies course took over a decade to develop. Contributions came from a range of specialists in the field of African American studies, educators and academics from across the country.

Despite the fact that this current school year marks the inauguration of the course (still in its pilot phase), AP African American Studies has already been effectively eliminated from the list of AP courses available to high school students in Florida’s school system. This move is a textbook case of systemic racism and far right political ideologies negatively impacting educational policy. Many great minds have already written about this issue and responded with impassioned and coherent criticism, so I do not need to add my voice to the echo chamber. What I do want to focus on is an article titled “Where’s the Art in the AP African American Studies Curriculum?” published in Hyperallergic, which caught my attention because it describes an issue with the course that is both less discussed and far less controversial. Prior to this publication, I had not had a chance to look over the course curriculum. I do have significant knowledge around the AP Art History course, however, and have previously written about how the class has been updated to reflect more of a global perspective of art and culture rather than the more traditional and longstanding Eurocentric narrative (see: What does an equitable art education look like?).

Even with all the updates, AP Art History has a lot of shortcomings with regards to its content and context covering the historical and contemporary cultural contributions of Black artists and communities. I completely understand that the amazing teachers of AP Art History have limited bandwidth to cover each of the 250 required works of art in just one school year. The issue is the selection of core works. There are still only sparse examples of art made by artists of the African diaspora. For example, why are Jacob Lawrence and Wilfredo Lam the sole African American and Afro-Cuban artists mentioned in “Content Area 4, Later Europe and Americas | 1750–1980 C.E.”?

There are ample paintings by white male artists from Europe and the architectural work of a slave owner (Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello) in the aforementioned section, which spans the course of two centuries. Representing the Black experience with just two works, albeit two very important ones (Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 49 and Lam’s The Jungle), is totally unsatisfactory. This is especially problematic considering what happened during those years (chattel slavery, the Haitian Revolution, Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement to name a few) had an enormous impact on Black individuals and communities.

Tuskegee Chapel (1898), which Robert Robinson Taylor considered his best architectural work.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The addition of Jefferson’s Monticello adds insult to injury. Yes, it is a significant work that is best representative of early United States architecture, but it was also a bastion of the plantation system and slavery. Jefferson’s home was also “home” to more than 600 enslaved men, women and children, although they did not choose to live there, nor did they get to relish in the many ornate and luxurious features that Jefferson and his family enjoyed. I am not suggesting that the College Board should remove this work. It is important because it shaped an entire architectural boom in the newly founded United States of America. However, I think that the work should be countered with work by Black artists from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are a few well known artists including Joshua Johnson, Prince Demah and Scipio Moorhead, all of whom were enslaved (Johnson was the only one granted freedom). Robert Robinson Taylor is also grossly omitted, despite being the first known Black architect practicing in the United States. After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he worked from 1892 to 1935. His major architectural projects included expanding the campus of Tuskegee University, a renowned historically Black school. Taylor also designed the university’s curriculum alongside the school’s founder and first president, Booker T. Washington.

Augusta Savage posing with her sculpture Realization, created around 1938 as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Moving onto the twentieth century, still within Content Area 4; where are the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, which took place in the 1920s and 1930s and completely altered the course of music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, politics and scholarship? The movement may have started in Harlem, a pivotal location for Black cultural innovation, but it quickly influenced the entire country. Artists like Augusta Savage, Aaron Douglas and Romare Bearden not only represented their community via artistic portraiture and street scenes (see: “Want to Make Art and Education Great? Start with Community” and “Cityscape and the personalized experience”), but through the creation of local art schools and community cultural centers, such as Savage’s Harlem Community Art Center. And where are the revolutionary and radical artists who utilized their art to fight for civil rights and Black empowerment during the 1950s onward? The Black Arts Movement which began in 1965 under the influence of American writer, poet, and cultural critic, Amiri Baraka, included art-centered activists seeking to uplift and empower Black communities throughout the United States. Running parallel to the Black Power zeitgeist, the Black Arts Movement focused on revolutionary cultural expression. Visual artists associated with the Black Arts Movement include Elizabeth Catlett, Benny Andrews and the AfriCOBRA artist collective co-founded by Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Nelson Stevens and Gerald Williams. The exclusion of these artists and art movements from the course is perplexing and problematic.

The good news is that AP Art History’s “Content Area 10: Global Contemporary | 1980 to the present” does a bit of a better job highlighting contributions from African American artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker and Julie Mehretu; as well as Black international artists, El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare and Wangechi Mutu.

AP African American Studies has the potential to fill in the gaps, however, as Elaine Velie, the author of the Hyperallergic piece, notes there are glaring omissions to the course including many largely influential Black artists and cultural movements. Examples of confounding exclusions include Kimberlé Crenshaw, who helped to define critical race theory (see: “Lessons In Critical Race Theory From the Arts”), as well as educators and writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and bell hooks, whose work is essential for scrutinizing issues of race, gender and queerness (see: “bell hooks: radical education and empathy”). The Black Lives Matter movement, which is arguably the most consequential Black led social justice initiative since the civil rights marches, is merely a footnote in the course, mentioned not as a core theme, but as one of the “sample project topics.” Due to Crenshaw’s omission, Critical Race Theory is also left out.

Elizabeth Catlett, Glory, 1981, cast bronze with a black patina on a wooden base, 14 x 9 1/2 x 10 inches, museum purchase with funds provided by Wellesley College Friends of Art 2017.235

Black art and the innovation and ingenuity of Black artists, radically transformed the culture of the United States. So the fact that they are not extensively covered in either AP Art History and AP African American Studies, indicates a significant oversight on the part of the College Board to say the least. AP African American Studies does present works of art and artists that were left out of AP Art History’s 250 works. For example, Elizabeth Catlett is discussed and represented via her sculpture Glory (1981), a bust of dancer Glory Van Scott that is an overarching symbol of the strength and beauty of Black women. Other important examples in the course are W.E.B. DuBois’ exhibition at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris of colorful infographics representing the trials and tribulations, successes and contributions of Black individuals during the years following the emancipation of enslaved African Americans through the end of the nineteenth century (see: “W.E.B. Du Bois’ Visual Lessons About the Black Experience in Academic, Professional and Everyday Life”). Photographer James Van Der Zee’s Portfolio of Eighteen Photographs, 1905-38, which like DuBois’ infographics, portrays the perseverance and prosperity of Black communities in the wake of slavery, is also mentioned in a unit called “Photography and Social Change.”

The course also contains several important Black-centered aesthetic movements such as the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, Négritude movement and Afrofuturism. Ironically, none of the aforementioned movements are significantly covered in AP Art History. But even with these topics, the AP African American Studies course feels both watered down and whitewashed. Educator Suneal Kolluri who wrote an op-ed in the Seattle Times titled “Watering down AP African American Studies is a Disservice to Students,” mentions that the course was initially far more robust and diversified. However, he notes that due to criticism from various groups, most notably conservative and right wing politicians and pundits, the version of the course that was piloted has been significantly modified to (try and) appease the critics. The ramifications are significant because it erases nearly all criticism of the pervading white supremacy that has been an ongoing systemic means used to oppress Black communities. Kolluri (2023) explains that presenting racism through a historical lens, “perpetuates the myth that anti-Black racism exists solely in the past.” He adds that by diluting or negating to mention specific past and present examples of racially motivated oppression, the course falsely frames “present-day Black inequality as the fault of Black inadequacy,” which in turn upholds the ideologies of white supremacy more than providing students with a replete understanding of the Black experience.

If these issues are addressed and the omissions are amended, AP African American Studies has the potential to shift the course of how American history and the humanities are taught and learned. With the trials and tribulations that the course has already faced, it is apparent that large portions of the United States feel threatened by the content and concept of Black empowerment. Contemporary art curator Kelli Morgan says it best: “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” (quoted in Velie, 2023).

Alisha Wormsley’s public art project There Are Black People in the Future shown here on a building in Pittsburgh, PA in 2017, is a great example of an enduring understanding that should inspire the next phase of AP African American Studies. Photograph by The Last Billboard.

An artwork that sums up what the goal behind any survey of any Black history class should entail, is Alisha Wormsley’s There Are Black People in the Future. The project features text prominently displayed on billboards and buildings, which in the artist’s words, “highlight the need for Black people to claim their place. Through the inscription and utterance of the words, ‘There are Black People in the Future,’ the project addresses systemic oppression of black communities through space and time by reassuring the presence of Black bodies.”

There Are Black People in the Future is pedagogical in its nature. It utilizes backward design (see: “Timeless Pieces of Art for Purposeful Learning”) by identifying an overarching objective and message that Wormsley wants viewers of the work to understand, and subsequently turning the concept into a tangible learning experience with ample room for assessment. The message behind the artwork might exemplify the ideal educational philosophy and objective of whomever is responsible for the next phase of the the next phase of the AP African American Studies curriculum. The mantra “there are Black people in the future” should be kept in mind when revising the course, because it would be the basis for going back through each unit to ensure that the course truly and honestly reinforces the prowess of the African diaspora in the United States. Declaring this mantra acknowledges that Black history is a continual, living legacy, which accounts for Black culture and Black identity enduring and persevering over past and present hardships, while asserting that any future struggles will be overcome as well. Studying history should inspire present generations to envision a better future for themselves, their peers and others who share both similar and different backgrounds and experiences.

With the aforementioned objective and understanding in mind, AP African American Studies could be a catalyst that changes our overall understanding and presentation of Black history in all educational, institutional and cultural settings. The current way that African American culture and the Black diaspora is addressed in many K-12 schools leaves a lot to be desired. This is because it does not completely impart enduring understandings about both the difficult experiences and the uplifting achievements of Black individuals in the United States. Instead of a critical examination into the real histories and ongoing experiences of intersectional identities, Black and other marginalized cultures get designated months of observance (i.e. Black History Month) that more closely resembles a marketing campaign than a pedagogical initiative. Of course, Black History Month should exist, but perhaps it might be collectively reassessed in order to be a more critical and rigorous exploration of Black history and present day experiences.

Educator Shawnta S. Barnes’ wrote a great op-ed that implores us all to reconsider Black History Month as a more critical and comprehensive study on Black culture. She has written a thirty day Black Excellence guide honing in on a particular feature of either an individual, collective, idea or contribution that unites Black History Month with the entirety of United States history. Barnes notes that Black History Month is necessary because the collective consciousness of the United States has failed to recognize the entirety of the Black American narrative. However, it is not enough to just focus on this narrative during the shortest month of the year, because Black history is intrinsic to American history at large. African Americans have been contributing to the functionality and identity of the United States since its foundation. Barnes (2023) hopes that “Black history is seen as American history and that it is so enmeshed that Black History Month becomes redundant. Since that is not the case, we need Black History Month, and we need people to get better at embedding Black History 365 days a year.”

In a perfect world, Barnes’ words should resonate with those who have the impudence to critique, censor or erase that history. We need and deserve to learn the truth about the human condition, which includes both the good and the bad things that humans have done. Curricula such as AP African American Studies should be one of the key methods used to achieve a deep and well rounded understanding of the intergenerational impact of structural racism, and the resiliency and excellence throughout Black culture continues bringing about inspiring and transformational change.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Barnes, Shawnta S. “Black History Month Should Unite Us, Not Divide Us,” Indy Education, 8 February 2023.

Kolluri, Suneal. “Watering down AP African American studies is a disservice to students,” Seattle Times, 6 February 2023.

Velie, Elaine. “Where’s the Art in the AP African American Studies Curriculum?”

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