L.A. high school’s AP African American Studies course fills a void prohibited elsewhere
Dr. Donald Singleton, an instructor at Dorsey High for 26 years, has taught African American history and AP classes numerous times. But, he describes teaching AP African American Studies as a new experience that everybody is excited about.
“The parents have told me they love it, and they thank me, and many people would say, ‘I wish someone taught this to me. I wish I knew about it when I was in school, to have a balanced education,’” Singleton said.
The College Board, the group that runs the SAT test and Advanced Placement program, began the rollout of their new AP African American Studies course last fall. The instruction of AP African American Studies, as well as removing “controversial” books from library shelves and class syllabi, has been a hot button issue in conservative strongholds around the country.
“It’s a bleak situation in parts of Florida. We’ve got teachers teaching on eggshells, in classrooms with no books,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of Free Expression and Education programs.
In Los Angeles, teachers aren’t held back by such restrictions. Susan Miller Dorsey High School in Crenshaw is the only public high school in California to offer AP African American Studies.
“This will go down in history. It just shows that we can actually sit and learn about [African American history] and also talk about it,” said Dorsey junior Allegresse Ngoma.
We can not only say that we’re in the class, but that we’re also impacted by what Dr. Singleton is teaching us, she continued. “It’s very significant.”
Singleton has traveled the country explaining the importance of Advanced Placement classes to policymakers as an AP Advocate. When the College Board contacted him in November 2021 to ask if he would be interested in teaching a pilot course for their newest class, he enthusiastically accepted.
On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings, 19 students file into Singleton’s classroom to take their seats. There’s an air of liveliness in Room A211 as students laugh and chat among themselves and greet their teacher.
The back wall of the classroom is adorned with pictures and fact sheets on notable figures in Black history, such as Thurgood Marshall, Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. The flags of El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries hang next to flags of various universities—acknowledging where Singleton’s students are from, and the schools of their aspirations.
“It’s important for me to reflect my students, when they walk in the classroom and they see themselves,” he said.
Singleton’s approach draws on his students’ life experiences and relates them to the topic at hand to engage them. He said that this is key to students feeling invested in the class, and allowing them to better understand the material.
During one lesson, the class explored the influence of Ida B. Wells’s investigative reporting of Southern lynching laws. In a later discussion, Singleton used Paul Lawerence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” to connect with students. In his 1895 poem, Dunbar reflects on the experience of Black people in post-Civil War America and the universal tendency to hide a part of themselves. With the poem’s text projected on the white board, Singleton asks his students to think about the meaning of the poem, how it relates to the time period it was written and how it might also relate to their own experiences.
“Even though I’m introducing new things to them, I try to find out if there’s something I can hold on to with them, that they already know, to link it,” Singleton said.
When the class discussed the development and historical significance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” Singleton played a segment of the Black National Anthem from YouTube.
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was recently performed by actress Sheryl Lee Ralph at Super Bowl LVII. Her performance quickly stirred backlash from conservatives. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) tweeted that America has “one national anthem” and called the inclusion of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” before the game “wokeness.”
Standing for the National Anthem is a sign of respect, Singleton said. So, the same respect should be afforded to the Black National Anthem. While standing, one student raised his fist in the air. Sophomore Ethan Jackson’s anti-racism gesture is comparable to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the National Anthem for the oppression of Black Americans.
Jackson, 15, said he felt immature in his mindset about African American history before he joined the class. Since then, he has come to a better understanding about history and learned a lot of new things.
“I really like this class. This is the only class I really feel like I can express who I truly am, and where I come from,” he said.
AP African American Studies is just as rigorous and time-intensive as the other 35 AP classes. The extensive curriculum begins with the origins of the African Diaspora, followed by the history of the enslavement of Africans and Transatlantic slave trade. The final units cover Black resistance, from Reconstruction into the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, and beyond. Topics including Black migration, achievements in science, medicine and technology, diversity within the Black community and Afrofuturism are covered.
Many of the students in Singleton’s class are well-acquainted with AP classes, as they’ve previously taken AP courses in world history, U.S. history and government. Just like other AP classes, Singleton said, he teaches students in a way that prepares them for the end-of-year AP exam, which includes essay responses to prompts.
The prompts of other AP history classes, said Singleton, have a much narrower scope which “never allow you to go” deep into discussion of race and ethnicity.
“That’s the key. Many of the kids feel they never had an opportunity to be honored for who they are,” Singleton said. “They had to conform with some other standard in order to succeed.”
The pilot program participants will not earn any college credit for passing the AP exam, but Singleton said many of the students stayed in the class because they love learning the material. Ngoma, 17, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said learning about African history in the early units was enlightening and characterized the class as barrier-breaking.
“I feel like we are learning things that we’ve never learned before. It’s just very interesting to see how resilient the Black community is,” and how we can do things that people say we can’t, she said.
Similarly, senior Sincere Smith, 17, said he thinks the in-depth nature of the class is a great opportunity for students, and something that was missing from his past schooling.
“In elementary and middle school, we didn’t really get taught a lot about our history,” said Smith. “This class provides a deeper dive into African American history.”
The launch of AP African American Studies comes when several states have passed legislation restricting the discussion and teaching of critical race theory and the legacy of racism in America. Critical race theory, or CRT, refers to an intellectual framework used in higher academia. It is the term often used by conservative politicians and figureheads to describe any education that addresses racism in U.S. history, denouncing it as divisive, anti-American and socialist indoctrination.
In a January press conference, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that topics in the new AP course are pushing an agenda and violates new legislation commonly referred to as the “Stop WOKE Act.” The Florida Department of Education rejected the course, and said in a letter to the College Board that the material “significantly lacks educational value.”
“We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them,” DeSantis said. “When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”
Some of the controversial topics covered in the initial framework of the course included work from Black authors and scholars on subjects like Black feminism, queer theory, and the reparations movement.
DeSantis’s comments dovetail with the “Don’t Say Gay” law he signed last March which limits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. On Feb. 13, DeSantis pitched the idea of replacing AP classes, and state officials have been exploring alternatives to the College Board’s classes and tests.
Senior Gianna Reynolds, 18, said she is well aware of the controversy, and disagrees with the Florida governor. “If Black people learning about their history has no value, then it’s saying that our lives and the people whose lives came before us don’t matter,” said Reynolds. It feels like a “slap in the face” to anyone that wants to learn about African American history.
The College Board published a revised framework of the pilot program on Feb. 1. Ten days later, the company said that they “deeply regret not immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education’s slander.” “We should have made clear that the framework is only the outline of the course.”
The company rejected allegations that they eliminated Black scholars and thinkers from the AP curriculum in order to appease Florida policymakers. “Florida is attempting to claim a political victory by taking credit retroactively for changes we ourselves made but that they never suggested to us,” the Feb. 11 statement read.
In a curriculum focused on primary sources, the works of Black writers such as Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Ta-Nehisi Coates and bell hooks—and their scholarship around CRT, reparations and Black feminism—are secondary sources made available through the supplementary resource AP Classroom.
“The idea that we shouldn’t learn, or we shouldn’t want to learn, and it doesn’t mean anything to learn about [African American history],” said Reynolds, “is just furthering the idea that Black people are ignorant and don’t need to learn about their history.”