The questions started as soon as the last students trickled into Donald Singleton’s first period Advanced Placement African American Studies class on a recent morning. For nearly two hours, Singleton, who has taught at Susan Miller Dorsey Senior High School in Los Angeles for 26 years, challenged his students on their own perceptions of history.
“What have you learned?” he asked the class. “What do you know about the role of African women during slavery?”
“It was entirely permissible to rape a slave, kill a slave, hang a slave, lynch a slave,” responded senior Hassan Wright. “But if you taught them to read, you were just as bad as a slave.”
Advanced Placement African American Studies is, at its core, a history course, tracing the Black experience from early African kingdoms to slavery and the civil rights movement through today. And while it’s drawn fire from some Republicans calling it an example of “woke-ism” infiltrating education, students in the course say it shouldn’t be considered controversial.
“This isn’t a political class. This isn’t like choosing sides. It’s history that everybody should know,” junior Rosselyn Reyes told CBS News.
Jordan Love, also a junior, said the class changed the way he thought about Black history.
“There’s a major difference between having somebody tell you that you’re the ancestor of a slave family and having somebody tell you that you’re the ancestry of an advanced civilization,” he said.
Senior Kessiah Bing said she decided to take the class “to learn more about my people, my history,” adding, “It’s the truth.”
Like all other AP classes, African American Studies is designed by the non-profit College Board with help from university professors and offers students the opportunity to earn college credit. The class began taking shape in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked nationwide protests. The College Board plans to make it available to any U.S. high school that wants it next year. Currently, more than 700 U.S. high schools are piloting the course – amid pushback from Republican leaders.
In January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, called the class “indoctrination” and the state banned it outright. The state’s education department wrote it was “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”
In August, Arkansas said the course will no longer count toward graduation credit, writing in a letter to state superintendents “the pilot may not comply with Arkansas law.”
Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Fox News, “we cannot perpetuate a lie to our students and propaganda leftist agenda teaching our kids to hate America and hate one another.”
Wright, the senior at Dorsey, rejected claims the class stoked racial division.
“If there was a class that was deliberately telling students to hate White people and hate this country, I would be against that class, too,” Wright said. “I don’t think we should teach hatred of any kind.”
“My students come in excited”
At Dorsey High School, where the student body is mostly Black and Latino, the hope is the class will entice a demographic that hasn’t sought out AP classes at the same rate as others.
“The excitement for me is starting in Africa, and for millions and millions of Black kids, Africa is born in them,” Singleton said. “My students come in excited. They’ve done the reading. And they wonder, ‘Wow, I never learned this in any of my other classes.'”
Singleton denies that the course indoctrinates his students.
“I inculcate my kids with the idea that you’re just as beautiful, just as brilliant, as anyone else,” he said. “That’s my job every day.”
He embraced the idea that he was empowering his students, and drew parallels to teaching bedrock American texts.
“If it’s not about empowerment, why do you say the Pledge of Allegiance? Why do we teach about the Declaration of Independence? Why do we teach about the Constitution? Isn’t that empowerment?” Singleton said.
Claims of “sanitizing” history amid pressure
The course curriculum risks running afoul of measures that recently passed in 18 states restricting how K-12 instructors can teach about race.
In a statement to CBS News, Florida’s Department of Education noted the state has, which were adopted by the state legislature in July. The department says they comply with state law. The standards have been criticized as an effort to “rewrite” or “omit” parts of the Black experience, by including, among other things, instruction on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Not long after Florida banned the class in January, the College Board amended the curriculum, removing content on systemic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement and the push for reparations.
While the College Board said the changes were part of their “regular development process,” some educators said the organization acquiesced to political pressure.
Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he believes the College Board sanitized the curriculum.
“If you want to really learn about the history of the African American experience, you cannot leave out or sanitize slavery or the civil rights movements, or the fact that our nation has criminalized activities resulting in disproportionate numbers of people of color being imprisoned,” Carvalho said.
A spokesman for the College Board denied caving to political pressure and said some of the topics it removed may still be restored when the final curriculum is released later this year. The College Board also said “in some states teachers have more room to maneuver than others” and that it has “given teachers the flexibility to teach the essential content without putting their livelihoods at risk.”
“College Board’s goal for all Advanced Placement courses is access — both access to challenging college-level course work, and access for as many of those students in as many states as possible,” a College Board spokesman told CBS News. “In some cases, those dual access goals come into conflict. Our commitment ultimately is to rigorous coursework that reflects the discipline and what students will encounter in a college classroom.”
Singleton said the curriculum is intended to be a roadmap and teachers are free to introduce additional topics, like the Black Lives Matter movement or reparations in California.
“Just because it’s not gonna be tested on the exam, there’s nothing that says you’re not allowed to teach about these subjects,” he said.
Carvalho, who frequently sparred with DeSantis as the head of Miami’s school district until 2021, also criticized Florida’s new Black history standards, calling them an attempt to “erase history.”
“I’ve been an educator for 32 years. Never have I seen education becoming so polarized, so influenced by politics,” he said.