The Meaning of African American Studies

On Wednesday, February 1st, the first day of Black History Month, the College Board released its long-awaited curriculum for a new Advanced Placement class in African American studies. Two weeks earlier, the Florida Department of Education had rejected the course, claiming that it “lacks educational value and is contrary to Florida law.” Then, nearly a week later, Manny Diaz, Jr., the state’s commissioner of education, released a flyer listing his complaints, based on a pilot version of the course. They included the fact that there were units on intersectionality and activism, Black queer studies, “Black Feminist Literary Thought,” reparations, and “Black Study and the Black Struggle in the 21st Century.” The Movement for Black Lives—which brought out the largest demonstrations in American history, in the summer of 2020, with more than twenty million people participating—was dismissed as a topic of study.

When the College Board released the revised curriculum, all of the sections that Florida complained about had been removed. Representatives of the nonprofit have insisted that they were already planning to revise the pilot version, and that the onslaught from Florida had nothing to do with their changes. It is certainly believable that the preliminary version of the class would have been revised, but it is unbelievable that right-wing complaints did not influence the final outcome. Trevor Packer, the head of the Advanced Placement Program, told Time magazine, last summer, that the Movement for Black Lives had inspired a renewed effort to get the class under way. He said, “The events surrounding George Floyd and the increased awareness and attention paid towards issues of inequity and unfairness and brutality directed towards African Americans caused me to wonder, ‘Would colleges be more receptive to an AP course in this discipline than they were 10 years ago?’ ” It is hard to reconcile that inspiration with the decision to excise almost all mention of Black Lives Matter, intersectionality, police brutality, or any of the litany of issues that shape the experiences of Black people in the United States. Indeed, there is barely any mention of the Black rebellions of the nineteen-sixties, which were the backdrop to the demands of Black students that Black studies be included in college and university curricula. These omissions undermine the legitimacy of the A.P. course and the College Board itself. They also diminish the power of Black studies to make sense of our contemporary world.

On Wednesday evening, I spoke to Robin D. G. Kelley, a professor of history at U.C.L.A. and one of the authors whose work was removed from the revised course. (My work was listed as secondary reading in the pilot curriculum; it has also been removed.) In our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the history of African American studies, its connection to political struggle, and the consequences of the College Board’s actions.

What is Black studies? Why is this not just Black history?

This course is not by any stretch of the imagination a course in African American studies. The College Board says African American studies is an interdisciplinary approach, with the rigors of scholarly inquiry, to analyze the history, culture, and contributions of people of African descent in the U.S., and throughout the African diaspora. But this is not the definition of African American studies, Africana studies, Black studies at the university level.

The way that we teach it, in the way that I came up, is really about examining Black lives: the structures that produce premature death, that make us vulnerable; the ideologies that both invent Blackness and render Black people less than human; and, perhaps most important, the struggle to secure a different future. And so, therefore, a lot of it’s about interrogating racial categories, understanding the persistence of inequality, how this is shaped by the very foundations of Western thought, which is to say, it’s not about making Black people feel better. It’s not about your accomplishments. I’m sure that comes in. But, as a scholarly endeavor, it tries to understand how Black people came into being in the modern world—how that process through kidnapping, enslavement, the extraction of labor, the extraction of ideas, was foundational to the modern world. And, finally, the way that African people really tried to remake and re-envision that world, through art, through ideas, through social movements, through literature, through study in action. That’s what I understand it to be. And that’s not really in this curriculum.

So what do you think happened with the College Board and this course?

There’s two levels. One is that it’s about Ron DeSantis possibly running for President. I think that’s the most important thing, because, no matter what we think about DeSantis and his policies, we know he went to Yale University, and majored in history and political science with a 3.7 G.P.A., which means that he was at one of the premier institutions for history. That’s why I get frustrated when people say he needs to take a class. He took the class. He knows better. He knows that the culture wars actually win votes. He’s trying to get the Trump constituency.

So I think this is about Ron DeSantis wanting to run for President. But I also think that the focus on Florida occludes a bigger story. As you know, this goes back to the Trump years—well before Trump, but let’s just talk about the Trump years—the attack on the 1619 Project, Chris Rufo’s strategy of turning critical race theory into an epithet by denying it any meaning whatsoever. And creating a buzzword. That’s actually a strategy that has nothing to do with the field of African American studies; it has everything to do with vilifying a field—attacking the whole concept of racial justice and equity. So, to me, if DeSantis never banned the class, we would still be in this situation. And although it is true that a number of states did accept the pilot program for the A.P. class, some of those same states have passed, or are about to pass, laws that are banning or limiting what they’re calling critical race theory. So there is a general assault on knowledge, but specifically knowledge that interrogates issues of race, sex, gender, and even class.

It’s an ongoing struggle to roll back anything that’s perceived as diminishing white power. They want to convince white working people—the same white working people who have very little access to good health care and housing, whose lives are actually really precarious, as they move from union jobs to part-time, concierge labor to make ends meet—that somehow, if they can get control of the narrative inside classrooms, their lives would be better. Racism actually damages all of our prospects and futures.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the people who are targeted are you, Angela Davis, myself, bell hooks. To say that we’re not radical would be a lie. What does radical actually mean? What it means, what Black studies is about, is trying to understand how the system works and recognizing that the way the system works now benefits a few at the expense of the many. It’s easy to allow someone to come in, in the name of Black status, and say, “We’re going to talk about ancient Africa, and the great achievements of the Kush of ancient Egypt.” That’s not a threat—not as much as the idea of critical race theory saying that, no matter what policies and procedures and legislation are implemented, the structure of racism, embedded in a capitalist system, embedded in a system of patriarchy, continues to create wealth for some and make the rest of our lives precarious. Precarious in terms of money, precarious in terms of police violence, precarious in terms of environmental catastrophe, precarious in many, many ways. And I think people could agree with me that that’s why we do this scholarship: because we’re trying to figure out a way to make a better future. You know, that’s the whole point. And if that’s subversive, then say it, but it’s definitely not indoctrination, because indoctrination is a state that bans books.

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