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Education Trends

AP African American Studies Adds Needed Depth to U.S. History, Teachers Say

Sixty schools are piloting a new AP course that aims to take a comprehensive look at the history, politics, culture, and economics of African Americans in the U.S. The subject’s new teachers spoke to Edutopia about the experience so far.

November 16, 2022

Nelva Williamson has taught history for over 40 years in Houston and admits that before last spring, she considered retiring. Williamson, who has taught nearly every grade level there is at Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy, as well as classes ranging from Civics to Advanced Placement World History, figured there was nothing left to do. That is, until she learned that the one class she’d long been hoping for would finally become available: Advanced Placement African American Studies. 

This fall, Williamson is one of a small cohort of teachers piloting the new AP course in 60 schools across the country. The course will expand to 200 schools next year with the goal of offering it to all high schools by 2024. 

According to the College Board, the multidisciplinary course takes a comprehensive look at the “history, politics, culture, and economics of North American people of African descent.” While a detailed curriculum has yet to be released—leading some critics to speculate about the motives of the class and its goals—College Board CEO David Coleman wrote, in an editorial defending the course, that students will “engage in an unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence of the African-American experience.” 

According to the College Board, students will study topics ranging from African kingdoms, the slave economy, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and contemporary issues, including “unequal educational opportunities” faced by Black students. 

For Williamson, it’s been a long time coming. At the end of each year, the College Board gives teachers a survey asking them what course they would like to see added to the AP list. For six years, Williamson put down African American Studies because she’s long been dismayed by the fact that African American history and the history of other minorities in the United States tend to “exist in the margins, footnotes, and extra activities sections that people never get to” in K–12 education. Throughout her career, she has been intentional about bringing supplemental materials into classes to fill in gaps. “I always thought, well, if there was a course that did this, that would be perfect. Then I wouldn’t have to sort of insert figures and events into the history. It would just be there.” 

Upon learning that she would be one of the first teachers chosen to lead the inaugural course, Williamson put her retirement plans on hold. “It really is exciting to be teaching this history in a very formal way and for it to be recognized by the College Board,” she said. “It gives it a level of legitimacy that maybe some other courses would not have.”

Captivating Student Interest
The course is also, Williamson said, resonating deeply with her students—about 42 percent of whom identify as Black, as well as another 42 percent who identify as Hispanic. 

Last spring, when her school first announced it would be offering AP African American Studies, nearly the entire senior class of girls showed up for an interest meeting. “They want to know this history,” Williamson said of her students, adding that she believes a lot of interest was sparked by the murder of George Floyd and the period of unrest and conversations about race that followed. “They were hearing all of these things and didn’t know how to connect some of the things they were hearing to history.”

Brian Nolte, a social studies teacher at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, said the course has done a great job of methodically charting that history for students. “There has been a great amount of detail and intention put into how these lessons are designed, the sources that are used, and the flow of information from one topic to the next.”

Nolte, who previously taught elective African American History classes at his school, where the student population is 36 percent Black and 49 percent White, said those past courses were largely driven by “student interest and input” and tended to jump around between topics, themes, and historical periods in a “scattered” manner. 

This new AP course is very different. “It chronologically spans the experience of the African becoming African American,” he said. “What has this experience over the last 500 years really looked like?” 

The overarching look at history has been eye-opening to students, Nolte said. Recently, one student confided, “This class is the reason I come to school.” 

Studying More Than ‘Names and Dates’
Teachers making their way through the course say there are four core units of material for students to move through. The first unit is a deep dive into the African diaspora before the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. Unit two covers the beginning of the slave trade and the arrival of the first African slaves in North America. The last two units dig deeper into the particularities of the American slave trade and trace the African American experience all the way up to modern day. 

Marlon Williams-Clark, a social studies teacher at Florida State University Schools in Tallahassee, said his students are currently studying the leaders, language, clothing, traditions, and religions of ethnic groups and kingdoms in West, Central, and East Africa. While Egypt is commonly discussed in history classrooms, Williams-Clark said his students are, for the first time, learning about the kingdoms of Benin, Ghana, Mali, Sungai, and Zimbabwe. “We’re learning all these things about Africa that you’re probably not going to hear about in your World History classes.” 

Many of these early lessons bring in primary sources for students to sift through, Nolte said. One source he used recently was the Catalan Atlas, a medieval world map created in 1375 that Nolte said was used to discuss migration patterns and show how much of a global influence Africa had in the centuries leading up to the slave trade. Other sources include early paintings and artwork from African civilizations. As more written records become available, the course will include memoirs and journals from those who made the venture from the West into Africa. 

The interdisciplinary nature of the course calls for frequent injections of art, music, dance, and literature into study. Williams-Clark said his class recently looked at artwork predating the transatlantic slave trade to analyze Africanisms embedded in them, revealing the global influence of the continent even before slave trading became widespread. Students then trained their eyes on more modern artwork by African Americans to see how, in many instances, it referenced ancient African symbols and figures. 

Trevor Packer, head of the AP program at College Board, told Edutopia that students will later be discussing artifacts from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, reviewing sketches of the Amistad trial of 1839 from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and delving into original newspaper and magazine articles from the antebellum period. 

Williamson said the depth of the course and its sources will prove useful even during the study of periods that students might have some understanding of—such as the Reconstruction era. According to Williamson, in other history courses, periods like Reconstruction are often glanced over. In Texas, she said, discussion of the period happens at the end of eighth grade, and as a result, many teachers don’t get to it. When U.S. History is picked up in 11th grade again, she said, it starts with the Progressive era. 

Challenging History, Tough Conversations 
Although it is still early in the year, Williams-Clark said, the immense background knowledge and source material that students have been exposed to have already enlightened many of them—and challenged assumptions they previously had about the African continent and the ancestors of slaves.

In Williamson’s Houston classroom, students have been surprised to learn about complexities of civilizations in Africa before the slave trade even began, she said. “The kingdoms of West Africa were flourishing and had a high level of civilization that is not taught in other classes,” she recalls one student telling her. 

They’ve also been eager to learn more about the diversity of these civilizations. “The spread of the Bantu languages across Africa helped me to see that the African continent is very diverse and not a monolith,” another student told Williamson. “The variety of languages also points to the variety of culture and history in the regions we are studying.”

Moving forward to the next unit of study, Williams-Clark expects history will continue to surprise students in ways that he finds important for their understanding of the complexity of the slave trade. “It will be a bit of a surprise, for instance, to learn just how many African tribes and kingdoms were directly involved in the slave trade and to describe some of the things these tribes were trading human lives to get from Europeans.”  

Already, Williams-Clark said, students have had stirring conversations following curriculum materials, such as a video by Henry Louis Gates Jr. called 42 Million Ways to Be Black. While discussing the video, Williams-Clark said, students of all races and ethnicities challenged stereotypes about what it means to be Black that they had brought into the classroom. 

Williams-Clark said that at the end of the conversation, students came away with the understanding that “while you might be part of a group, you are allowed to be an individual and be the way you want to be.” 

During hard conversations, Williams-Clark said, he makes it a point to “sit back” and let students learn from each other as much as possible. He also allows for some “not so politically correct” things to be said if they emerge from a good-faith effort to be honest about their thoughts and preconceptions. In other words, the sort of thorny conversations that many students today might feel they can’t have. 

“Having the right instructor to be sort of a moderator to guide those discussions is a very good thing,” Williams-Clark said. 

Political Headwinds
Since the College Board first made its decision to launch AP African American Studies at the start of this school year, details about what exactly is in the curriculum have remained scarce. The secrecy, combined with the cultural and political moment in the U.S.—a time when states are passing restrictions on how race is discussed in classrooms, and The New York Times’ “1619 Project” is viewed as groundbreaking, historically inaccurate, or both, depending on who you ask—has led critics to speculate that the new course is a means to “pander” to Black students or indoctrinate them into a certain way of looking at U.S. history. 

In his recent editorial, Coleman, CEO of the College Board, wrote that the course is governed by the same principles as all AP courses. “There are no points ever awarded on an AP exam for agreeing with a point of view. Rather, students encounter evidence and make up their own minds,” Coleman wrote. “Let us dare to respectfully and seriously explore African-American history and culture, and along with students, be enriched by understanding its depth and complexity.” 

Although Nolte has been surprised by how little the College Board has shared publicly about the course thus far, he said that he agreed with Coleman’s assessment of the course, based on his experience teaching it this year. “This is just history,” he told Edutopia. “History, although it is dead and gone, continues to evolve. And the way that we look at history and the way that we analyze history must continue to evolve.”

Williams-Clark said he believes that misconceptions about the course will be dispelled when the curriculum is publicly released—something the College Board said will likely happen in 2024. “This is a strong vetting of professors across the nation who are experts in this field to pull this course together to give a very comprehensive and academically sound story of the African American experience,” Williams-Clark said. 

He said that he thinks many critiques and much fear surrounding the course stem from the fact that when people hear “Black” or “African American” studies, there is an assumption that a course will teach students only about race and racism. “It’s not that,” Williams-Clark said. “It’s a story about a diaspora of people. And yes, when you’re talking about the African American experience, it is undeniably linked to race and racism they experienced. But that is not an ideology. It is the truth. It is history, we cannot change it, and we can’t be afraid to engage with history even when it’s uncomfortable.”

Williamson added that while the course will reframe historical periods that students have previously learned through the lens of African Americans’ experiences, the course is not teaching students an “alternative” history of the United States. “We’re looking at primary documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but we’re looking at it through the lens of how those documents affected enslaved people and freedmen at the time and what was going on with those people at that time,” she said. “We’re not retelling the story. We’re adding to it. Adding another layer of depth.”

Implications for History Classes in the Future
Shannon Pugh, EdD, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said she has paid close attention to the rollout of the new AP course and the bits and pieces of curriculum materials that have been shared publicly or through conversations with teachers. 

“It’s diving deep into African American history, African American Studies, at a level that we really haven’t been able to do before,” Pugh said of the course. “That’s something the National Council for the Social Studies really supports: exploring not just one source on a topic, a person, or event, but actually looking at multiple perspectives, looking at multiple readings with different aims and different motivations.” 

Pugh said she sees the course not as a replacement for a traditional U.S. History course but rather a “complementary course.” 

The College Board’s Packer also said the new course is not meant to replace traditional U.S. History courses. “African American Studies is a distinct subject,” he said, “and this will be an interdisciplinary course that draws from a variety of fields… to explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans.” 

Despite this, Pugh said, she wouldn’t be surprised to see pieces of the curriculum find their way into other courses. According to Pugh, who was involved with the early rollout of the AP World History course 20 years ago, within a decade of the course debuting, she began to notice parts of the curriculum adopted into state history standards. 

“I’m optimistic that in a couple of years we’re going to see a lot of this history find its way over to U.S. History courses. It might be just a little bit here, a little bit there,” she said, “but I think that can really empower and enrich regular U.S. History courses.” 

Williams-Clark, like other teachers who spoke to Edutopia, agreed that this would be a welcome development. “I hope the ‘main courses’ like World History or U.S. History begin to switch the narrative to include some of these sources and materials,” he said.

In the meantime, he takes solace in the fact that his classroom is one of the first leading that charge. “I let my students know that they are part of history just as much as the teachers are,” he said, “and that their input is just as important as the teachers’.”

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