The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teens embrace AP class featuring Black history, a subject under attack

The new Advanced Placement class on African American Studies comes amid new state laws restricting how historical racism is taught

Patrice Frasier teaches Advanced Placement African American Studies at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, an elite public magnet high school in Baltimore. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
correction

A previous version of this article said AP African American Studies was the first new course offering from the College Board since 2014. Two other courses, AP Precalculus and AP Computer Science Principles have also been offered since that year. This article has been corrected.

BALTIMORE — The lesson on historical racism in the United States started with an exploration of Haitian Vodou and its American cousin, Voodoo.

Broaching such a topic would probably be verboten in an increasing number of public schools, raising the hackles of conservative politicians and parents and, in some places, even violating state laws about the way Black history and the roots of racism are taught.

Yet on a recent fall morning in Patrice Frasier’s Advanced Placement African American Studies class at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, the intertwined religions were the centerpiece of a freewheeling discussion.

“So when you hear the word ‘Voodoo’ what do you think?” asked Frasier, an outgoing woman with short reddish hair in a paisley shirt, as she strode purposefully among her 30 students seated in seven neat rows of desks.

One by one, the students ventured answers.

“Scary”

“New Orleans”

“Magic”

“Witchcraft,” said Ayana Thompson, a senior in a gray shirt and face mask seated near the wall.

Frasier laid out the day’s lesson. “Let’s talk about Voodoo and Santeria and how they’ve been demonized through history and why they’ve been demonized,” she said.

Images flashed on a projector screen at the front of the classroom. And, with that, the debunking began.

Baltimore Polytechnic, a selective, mostly Black magnet high school with about 1,600 students, is one of about 60 public high schools nationwide that were chosen to pilot the Advanced Placement course.

The interdisciplinary class, which in addition to history will span literature, political science, art and other subjects, will eventually be offered to all interested U.S. high schools starting in the 2024-25 school year. If approved, it would be the first high school course in African American studies that enables students to receive credit and advanced placement in college.

A spokesman for the College Board provided a press release but declined to answer questions, including about the course content or the names and locations of the pilot schools. In addition to Baltimore Polytechnic, high schools in Memphis, Brooklyn and Tallahassee, as well as Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro, Md., are among those offering the class, according to media reports.

The new class, a decade in the making, is debuting during a contentious political debate about how students learn history, with conservatives accusing educators of teaching “critical race theory” and banning lessons they believe might be hurtful to the self-image of White children.

A White teacher taught White students about White privilege. It cost him his job.

So far this year, 36 states have introduced 137 bills seeking to restrict teaching, mostly about race and gender, according to PEN America, a free-speech organization.

Among the most controversial is a Florida law signed last spring by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, which states in part: “A person should not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part.”

Yet public concerns over the teaching of race and racism coexist with a surging popular interest in Black history and historical racism that grew stronger during the racial justice protests of 2020. Museums, movies, media outlets and books addressing the topics have multiplied. Some school districts — including those in New York City, Newark, Chicago and Detroit — have added Black history courses or sought to infuse the subject throughout the curriculum.

The Advanced Placement African American Studies class took root in this rising curiosity as more students and teachers began requesting a course, according to the College Board.

Even before that, however, a cadre of public school teachers and administrators, among them then-Prince George’s County Schools Superintendent John Deasy, began lobbying the College Board to develop a class in African American history.

Early proponents saw the course as a way of encouraging more Black students to take Advanced Placement classes as preparation for college. They also believed that the class could instill self-esteem in Black teens — a purpose that is diametrically opposed to today’s laws designed to protect the feelings of White students.

At Baltimore Polytechnic, Frasier believes that classes like hers and the proposed AP class help rectify a fundamental problem in the way the story of African Americans is taught in schools — by focusing scattershot on slavery and Black Americans’ freedom struggle, reflexively illustrated by familiar figures such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“African American history does not begin and end with slavery,” said Frasier, a 49-year-old Baltimore native who has been teaching an elective African American studies course at the school for half of her 23-year career.

The sweep of the subject “starts with a whole continent of people and countries, people who came to this country with ideas and values and who were doing amazing things.”

For Black students, absorbing just a sliver of this breadth “serves the purpose of giving them a sense of pride in their history, but it also draws them in further because they’re seeing themselves in what they’re learning,” she said.

‘Illustrious and flawed’

In the summer, Frasier and other pilot teachers met at historically Black Howard University to review the broad outlines of the course and prepare to teach it. Lessons, spanning 400 years, include the origins of the African diaspora, the slave trade, culture and community, resistance and abolition, Reconstruction, Black freedom movements, and contemporary debates.

As with all Advanced Placement courses, while the teachers must cover the overarching topics, they have considerable latitude in deciding the specifics of and materials for instruction. As they shape their lessons, members of the pilot cohort are relying on one another for ideas and problem-solving through an online community. The College Board has also enlisted about 20 professors to help shape the course.

The aim is to avoid the kind of oversimplification that suggests all Black people are good and all White people are bad, said Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of African American Studies at Harvard University, who is among the advisers.

For example, Higginbotham said, a successful class could force students to struggle with the fact that some Africans sold other Africans — and not just those from enemy tribes — into slavery. Or that one of the men who helped the famous Henry Box Brown escape bondage in Virginia by mailing himself to Philadelphia was White.

Slavery cost him his family. That’s when Henry ‘Box’ Brown mailed himself to freedom.

“The purpose is not to indoctrinate them or guide them in some kind of political philosophy. … The story is so much more complex than simply White people versus Black people,” Higginbotham said.

On the other hand, the existence of systemic racism cannot be dismissed, she said. “To deny that is to deny so many of our laws,” she said, including state laws against enslaved people reading and writing, about the legality of selling human beings, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Plessy v. Ferguson and so on. “We are both illustrious and flawed,” she said of the nation.

As Frasier waited for her students to appear in class, she described her teaching philosophy.

“I don’t teach theory. I teach facts,” she said. “These things actually happened. There are bad things that happened in history, but your not talking about that doesn’t make them go away.”

“What I want is for my students to question things. … They can even question me.”

Fact from fiction

In Frasier’s classroom, frightening images of demonic ceremonies flashed on the screen — early Hollywood depictions of Haitian Vodou, a religion that originated in West Africa.

The video went on to separate fact from fiction:

·A version of the practice, known as “Voodoo,” took root in the United States with the enslavement of West Africans in Louisiana, who then merged their religious practices and rituals with those of their Catholic enslavers. Derived from African polytheism and ancestor worship, the faith revolves around the idea that spirits, rather than one God, intercede in the daily lives of humans and can be conjured by dance, music, snakes and other practices.

·The religion deepened its U.S. roots as Haitians fled here during and after the revolt in Haiti from 1791 to 1804. Although the practice had been banned in the country by French enslavers, secret Vodou gatherings had long been used to form political ideas and eventually communicate pro-independence messages. Enslaved people on the island kicked off the Haitian Revolution with a Vodou ceremony.

The Haitian leader assassinated after an anti-slavery revolution two centuries ago

·Haiti became the first independent Black nation, stoking the fears of the United States not so far to the north: Could the Haitian example lead to rebellion among enslaved people here?

Not surprisingly, depictions of Vodou and Voodoo as savage and evil immediately began to proliferate in American popular culture. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines to Haiti to prevent German influence in the region in the run-up to World War I. The occupiers, who remained until 1933, commanded the nation’s resources, committed racist violence and sent home fantastical tales. Their descriptions morphed on American movie screens into scenes of frenzied devil worship, human sacrifices and zombies. “The Magic Island,” billed as nonfiction by author William Seabrook, fueled the fire. All in time to coincide with White fears of Black power during Reconstruction and help justify the crackdown on Black rights known as Jim Crow.

As the video ended, Frasier once again paced the room, looking into the alert faces of her students.

“Why have we been taught to be afraid of Voodoo?” she asked.

“During segregation, society used it as a reason why you wouldn’t want to be around Black people, because they could put a spell on you and use black magic,” said Reuben Schreier, one of two students in the class who are not Black.

“White people felt like it was empowering to Black people,” Trinity Edwards said from the front of the classroom.

“How many of you thought that Voodoo was an evil thing?” Frasier asked.

Hands shot up.

“We see this throughout history. Is religion used politically in the United States?” Frasier asked. The students nodded.

“If they say something is evil or bad, what does that justify? What does it make it easier for them to do?”

“To oppress,” ventured Anthony Rollins from the back of the room.

“That’s right, religion is a form of power,” Frasier said.

As the class wound to a close, Xavier Ford reflected on what he learned from the back of the class. “I thought Voodoo was dark. … I knew nothing about it as a religion.”

This is exactly why he decided to take the class, he said. “I feel like there’s a lot about Black history that’s been misrepresented.”

As a Black person, he wants to know what really happened. “I don't think you can go through life without knowing your history,” he said. “You wind up feeling lost or unsure of yourself. It’s harder to form an identity.”

The lesson on Voodoo was eye-opening to Edwards, too. “It made me think that not everything has to be bad,” she said. “There could be alternate ways of looking at things.”

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