Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, suggests the heated controversy triggered by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ threat in January to ban a pilot Advanced Placement course in African American studies reflects the need for such a class in public high schools. DeSantis argued the course was “historically inaccurate” and “lacks educational value.” At least four other states are also reviewing the curriculum to ensure it complies with local laws. The College Board, which produces AP courses (higher-level coursework for which high school students can earn college credit), revised the curriculum but says it was for pedagogical reasons and not in response to political pressure. The Gazette spoke to Muhammad about the dispute and what it means. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad
GAZETTE: Why is it important to have an AP course in African American studies?
MUHAMMAD: It represents a long-fought effort to legitimize the teaching of Black people’s contributions to the world, because African American studies is bigger than just what happened here in the United States. It is an effort to legitimize this in a way that would make for a radical departure from what is customarily taught today in 2023. The fact that people have fought for this AP course and the right for it to be developed is an important and significant achievement.
Also, the fact that the College Board has a monopoly over the way their 38 AP courses are taught in high schools across the United States in some ways is the closest thing to a national curriculum in the United States. We should see this course amongst the three dozen others as a window into the kinds of material that we take seriously in our secondary education system, as a feeder into higher education more generally.
GAZETTE: To justify his threat to ban the course, DeSantis has said that “it lacks educational value.” What is your response to that?
MUHAMMAD: As someone who has spent his entire career in the field and who used to lead the oldest research and cultural archive dedicated to Black studies [the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture], the governor is absolutely wrong. His claims are an open attack on everything that African American studies has fought hard to achieve, both in its position within higher education and the histories of the people who make contributions that African American studies both acknowledges and is built upon. It is a complete erasure and denigration of the contributions of people of African descent in this society and around the globe.
GAZETTE: In your view, what is behind these arguments and the general reluctance to teaching African American history in public schools?
MUHAMMAD: The larger context in which this backlash is happening strikes me as a direct consequence of the protest movements that have been going on in this country for the past decade that are loosely described as the Black Lives Matter movement. These racial justice protests culminated in inspiring millions of white people across the country in the summer of 2020 to take to the streets to protest police violence. Since that time, there has been a political movement led by the White House under Donald Trump and later moved to state houses and legislative bodies to essentially cut off any further reading, discussion, or teaching about the history of antiracist struggles in this country and the contemporary movement for racial justice. What’s behind this current political attack is an effort to stem any further change in this country that would address the longstanding and enduring problems of structural racism that exists in the United States.
GAZETTE: Do you find any parallels between these actions and the backlash that took place after Reconstruction?
MUHAMMAD: There are parallels, but what happened after Reconstruction was more directly connected to the disenfranchisement of Black voters, particularly Black men, from the ability to have a say in representative government in this democracy. Whether it was disenfranchisement at the ballot box or the use of terror for people to self-disenfranchise, meaning to simply withdraw from political life altogether, it was a more visceral period in U.S. history that ultimately led to legal segregation and second-class citizenship for Black Americans.
The Reconstruction period also witnessed the creation of the narrative of the Southern Lost Cause and the celebration of white supremacy in American education and in textbooks across the South and the construction of monuments to celebrate the Confederacy. What is deeply troubling now in this moment is that this is in many ways still the status quo. What is happening here is the fight against the effort to change the way in which the celebrations of white supremacy or the erasure of Black History continues to be a problem in American education.
GAZETTE: What do you think is a possible solution to this controversy?
MUHAMMAD: At this point, the College Board has to show a vigorous defense of the field and an unflinching commitment to the fact that African American studies is about the past and the present. And that today’s fight for racial justice is also embodied in the increasing acknowledgement that queer Black people have been consistently left behind and that newer activists today recognize that freedom depends upon fighting for trans people’s rights as well. Fifty years from now, someone will look back on this moment, and either the College Board will be on the right side of history or on the wrong side of history. The wrong side will have been to bend to the political pressure, to accept censorship, and to believe that a half-victory is better than no victory at all. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.
The College Board is going to have to commit itself fully to restoring this curriculum as it was originally imagined and designed. I do also believe that that will not solve the problem of Florida and potentially now several other states, including Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota, and Mississippi, that have all said that they will now be reviewing the AP course to ensure that it complies with their state laws.
Some people might think this is not as important as some other political issues that are more pressing in their minds. But Black people have always been the canaries in the coal mine for the fascist underpinnings of this society. Black people lived longer than any other population with 100 years of totalitarian government in the Jim Crow South. We know what fascism looks like; we know what racist propaganda looks like. We’ve lived through it and fought against it. What today is the problem of an AP course in African American studies or Stop Woke Act is a fight that tomorrow will increasingly envelop other communities in this country who believe in equity and justice. That is a window into the dystopian future that every American ought to care deeply about for those who don’t want to slide into an authoritarian society, which seems to be the direction that significant parts of this country are heading. All of this is happening right now right in front of us, and I’m afraid not enough people are standing up to fight against it.