This week, the College Board — the nonprofit that oversees the Advanced Placement program in schools — released its updated curriculum for its AP African American studies course after receiving criticism from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose state banned the course from its public schools.
E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the Northwestern University School of Communication, contributed some of the Black queer theory content that DeSantis called evidence of an “agenda.” Johnson defended the topic’s inclusion in the original curriculum.
“I believe that our history includes the history of people who are LGBTQ, myself being one of them,” Johnson said. “And queer theory is just one aspect of how we incorporate sexuality in the story of African American history. From talking about those who contributed to that history who were gay to how we analyze different texts that deal with sexuality.”
In 2020, Illinois state Rep. La Shawn Ford, a former CPS history teacher, called for an abolition on teaching history in schools until a “suitable replacement” could be found for outdated curricula. Ford said teaching history that include a diversity of perspectives is what’s needed.
“What we have now is more of a desire to have an inclusive history,” Ford said. “When I taught, I didn’t even know that James Baldwin was a gay man. I think that what we see now is the conservatives fighting to keep history as it was, and that’s not what we call inclusive. And I think America, regardless to whether you’re White, Black or Brown, we want inclusive history and we want it accurate.”
In response to a New York Times article outlining some of the changes to the curriculum from its pilot phase, the College Board said the adjustments made had nothing to do with Florida's ban on the course, but that the revision was part of the normal process for an AP course. Johnson said he is skeptical of that assertion.
“I don’t think it's necessarily totally true,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of political pressure, a lot of blowback. But it is true that all of these courses have a preliminary test run in all of the schools for a year and then things are recalibrated. I think that queer theory, in particular, it’s the theory part that might have been a bit much for some high school students because it’s at a higher level of thinking. But … there are certainly Black gay folks who are critical to African American history, like James Baldwin, like Audrey Lorde, and others who you can’t get around teaching as a part of our history.”
Johnson added that the omission of a unit on the Black Lives Matter movement in the revised curriculum is “a missed opportunity” for students who witnessed the BLM movement in real time.
“It fits in with a longer history of social movements in African American history from the civil rights movement, and even before that, the Black nationalist movement,” Johnson said. “So it's a missed opportunity I believe to omit something that is actually instrumental in the current students’ lives.”
Ford said Illinois’ Black Caucus has taken steps to ensure a similar ban will not happen in Illinois.
“We have a pillar that makes sure that we’re working to have accurate history taught in our schools,” Ford said. “And we want to make sure that it’s inclusive, that we include the Black, the Brown, the gay, the straight and the women — the contributions that have been made from all people, not just one sector. And we know that the current history that’s been written is one-sided. It’s been written by the white man, and things are changing in our society.”
But, Ford said, he’s glad to have attention directed at this curriculum.
“I’m enjoying the dispute between the dissenters and the people,” Ford said. “I’m happy that he’s (DeSantis) come out to say that he’s against it because it gives us a chance to collaborate and make it right.”