By Abayomi Azikiwe
African American History Month Series No. 10
“In spite of the long and untiring work in education and organization of the pioneers of Civil Rights; in spite of the painstaking effort made by African American citizens of the United States to educate their children, and by hard work to achieve ‘acceptance’ in American society, African Americans have remained only barely tolerated aliens in the land of their birth, the vast mass of them outside consideration of basic human justice. This is a fact which is now being called to the attention of all those who through the years have had in their power the means to order and fashion the world according to their interests. White interests controlled the economic wealth; white interests have been able to establish the ‘moral’ standards by which Americans must live; white domestic imperialism made all the laws, rules and regulations. This was the modern world up to, and throughout, the first half of the twentieth century.” Quote taken from Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in the pamphlet entitled “The Specter of Black Power” released in 1968.
Since the periods of colonial and antebellum enslavement in North America, the education of African people and the recognition of their history and contributions have been controversial among the white-dominated ruling class and its allies.
In order to reinforce the systems of slavery, feudalism, monopoly capitalism and imperialism, the dominant economic interests within these societies are committed to the erasure and obscuring of the experiences of working and oppressed peoples.
During January 2023, Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis rejected a suggested advanced placement (AP) public school curriculum which sought to recorrect the past failures in regard to the teaching materials available to students and educators. DeSantis said the AP curriculum had “no educational value” for residents of the state of Florida.
This attitude exemplified by DeSantis is by no means a new position. These views reflect the institutional neglect and distortions within the educational system in the United States. Since the 1960s, when African American students and parents demanded the adoption of knowledge related to the struggles against racism and economic exploitation, educational structures from the K-12 level right to colleges and universities have resisted the implementation of African American Studies.
Since the administration of former President Donald Trump, a concerted campaign has been waged by right-wing organizations and political officials to further politicize the research and literature on African American people and other oppressed nations within the confines of the U.S. Conservative elements have challenged library and school boards claiming that they are allowing left-wing indoctrination to pose as education.
These groups have led campaigns to ban books by African American authors claiming such literature negatively impacts white students. This narrative boldly claims that the reading and teaching of the actual history, social conditions and culture of African Americans, Latin Americans, Indigenous Native people, Asians, women and the LGBTQ+ peoples would make white youth feel guilty over the crimes against humanity committed in modern times as well as throughout the past.
Critical Race Theory (CRT), which was developed in prestigious university law schools such as Harvard during the time of Professor Derrick Bell, has been utilized to falsely stigmatize any pedagogical approach to the teaching of African American studies. CRT in most cases could not be taught in a K-12 setting since it involves complicated and nuanced concepts related to U.S. Constitutional law.
Therefore, it becomes clear that the labeling with CRT over all teaching methodologies involving African American and Latin American Studies is designed to only suppress knowledge systems. These conservative efforts are a means to mobilize and propagandize their prospective political bases making it possible to elect more right-wing Republican politicians to offices.
If large sections of the U.S. population are kept away from African American Studies, the right-wing feels that their potential for continuing the status-quo will remain intact. This is important in the overall strategy of maintaining institutional racism by pretending as if slavery, legalized segregation, gender oppression and economic exploitation of the working class never existed in the U.S.
Taking and promoting such positions has become a dog whistle for conservative politicians in various geographical regions. DeSantis is considering a run for president in 2024, therefore he has to appear to be tough on nationally oppressed segments of the population.
An article, published by the Guardian newspaper, says of the situation in Florida that:
“This move is the latest in a series of actions to keep conversations and lessons about race, sexuality and gender identity off the state’s school campuses. DeSantis officially banned the course in a letter from the state education department to the College Board, the organization that administers college readiness exams like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). They also oversee advanced placement (AP) courses, which allow students to earn college credits in subjects like English and chemistry…. DeSantis, a one-time Donald Trump ally, plays an active role in stoking social and political anxieties, primarily among white Americans, that stem from conversations about race and gender that occur on K-12 public school campuses. In April 2022, he signed the Stop Woke Act, which severely limits ‘race-based’ discussions at schools.”
College Board Backs Away After Right-wing Attacks
Rather than doubling-down in response to the obviously political stance of DeSantis, the College Board which drafted the AP curriculum on African American Studies revised the initial document to bring it more in line with the attacks leveled by conservative forces. This much-publicized shift in focus and emphasis illustrates the lack of intellectual integrity and political will which prevails within academic institutions in the U.S.
The New York Times, in a report published on February 1, the first day of the nationally-recognized and designated African American History Month, said of the College Board’s actions:
“After heavy criticism from Gov. Ron DeSantis, the College Board released on Wednesday an official curriculum for its new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies —stripped of much of the subject matter that had angered the governor and other conservatives. The College Board purged the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the queer experience and Black feminism. It ushered out some politically fraught topics, like Black Lives Matter, from the formal curriculum. And it added something new: ‘Black conservatism’ is now offered as an idea for a research project.”
This raises even more questions about the purpose of the AP curriculum. Does an adoption of “Black conservatism” as a viable research project mean that the study of the Atlantic slave trade, the role of African people in the Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, the implementation of legalized segregation and the popular struggles of oppressed peoples are to be ignored? There is more than ample documentation on all of these phases of U.S. history and culture. Such an approach would be tantamount to burning books on topics which threaten the racial and class composition of the country.
The Politics of African American Studies
As in decades past, African Americans and their allies must vigorously reject these ongoing attempts to distort school curriculums. Since the 1960s and even before, mass actions were initiated demanding the inclusion of the history and cultural contributions of oppressed peoples.
There has been a strong rejection of the views and policies of DeSantis among African Americans. Public meetings have been held and plans for legal action are being undertaken.
These issues will become even more pertinent in light of the rapidly shifting demographic character of the U.S. The people of color communities and oppressed nations are becoming a collective majority during the 21st century. In addition, many whites, although still a minority within their own communities, have taken a keen interest in African American Studies and understand clearly why it is essential for the adoption of this knowledge within K-12 and higher educational curriculums.
Until the fundamental oppression and exploitation of African Americans has been overthrown, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a genuinely democratic educational system in the U.S. to be achieved. Consequently, a political struggle must be waged for the adoption of correct approaches to education which recognize the history and contributions of all peoples inside the U.S. and around the world.