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Opinion Black History Month is, uh, not off to a great start

If I could explain Black History Month 2023 in one GIF, it would be this:

I know, I know. The value of Black history can’t be contained in only a month. And one can’t define whether a month is “good” or “bad” based on what is happening in the news cycle.

But sheesh, just three days in, this month is already chock full of anti-Blackness. Last week, the horrific video of Tyre Nichols’s arrest surfaced, sparking endless conversations about police brutality and Black death. On Wednesday, the first official day of Black History Month, Nichols’s funeral was televised nationally. For my column this week, I wrote about my increasing discomfort about putting Black murder and funerals on display. (More on that below.)

Also on the first day of Black History Month, a controversy over the subject of Black history itself was again making headlines.

As I wrote last week, the Florida Department of Education sent a letter to the College Board earlier in January saying that the state was rejecting Advanced Placement African American studies because its content was contrary to Florida’s laws. The state’s education commissioner called it “woke indoctrination masquerading as education.” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) did his usual grandstanding.

Then the College Board announced it had revised the course. Several elements and authors from the pilot program have been stripped. Units focused on intersectionality, Black feminist literary thought and Black queer studies are gone. Authors including bell hooks, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw and Ta-Nehisi Coates are out. An in-depth exploration of Black Lives Matter as a social movement has been reduced to a research project; it joins other potential projects such as “Black conservatism.”

The full final curriculum can be found here.

The College Board was put on the defensive after a New York Times article strongly implied that it had changed its curriculum as a result of DeSantis’s criticism. It put out a statement (one you had to look hard to find) denying it had caved to political pressure.

The Times argues the revisions were made in response to Florida, despite the fact that the College Board has time-stamped records of revisions from December 22, 2022. The article simply ignored that the core revisions were substantially complete — including the removal of all secondary sources — by December 22, weeks before Florida’s objections were shared.
The fact of the matter is that this landmark course has been shaped over years by the most eminent scholars in the field, not political influence.
— "How the New York Times Got it Wrong on AP African American Studies" — The College Board (2/1/22)

Sigh. What a hot mess.

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Given how politically charged the African American studies course has become, media outlets should practice responsible journalism around it. But the College Board’s explanation that its decision happened free of political influence is unsatisfactory. Many states, including Florida, have been waging war against “wokeness” and “critical race theory” in schools since 2021. Books have been banned and expelled from libraries.

The College Board told the Times that the earlier version of the course focused too much on contemporary movements and not enough on older history — such as ancient Nubian civilization. I’m all for learning about African civilization, but look at the climate we’re living in! If the point is to teach children about the history of the African American experience, it makes no sense to omit some of its most powerful movements.

How is it that Black Lives Matter, a decade-old social movement that spurred one of the largest global protests in human history, is relegated to the sidelines? How is it that critical race theory, a school of thought developed four decades ago, has been wiped completely from the curriculum? How is it that Crenshaw, a CRT pioneer credited with coining the term, is also absent?

Eugene Robinson: It’s not American history without Black history

I’m especially incensed and saddened that Black female activists and writers — not only hooks and Crenshaw but also Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Alice Walker — were purged. These women’s works have hugely influenced my writing. Any African American studies curriculum that deliberately omits them does a disservice to students; if this had been a course on offer when I was in school, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable taking it.

Here’s another thing that’s sad: Instead of being able to celebrate a course that is way overdue, students are threatening to sue, and the College Board is defending itself against accusations that it is a profit-hungry scam — cashing in to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in profit each year from the sales of its courses and the administration of its exams — and that it decided to soften its offerings purely to protect its income streams, especially in states with anti-CRT laws.

To be fair, this course has been in development for 10 years, with the input and guidance of African American scholars from around the country. There is no doubt that the creation of this course is historic. But is it ethical to take and pay for a course that gives the appearance of caving to nationwide anti-Black backlash? Is whitewashed African American studies better than no AP African American studies? Can states and schools pressure the College Board to add more robust teaching of contemporary movements and history?

I wrestle with this. And am curious what parents, educators and especially students think. Please write and let me know!

Home Front: The unethical spectacle of Black death

Speaking of ethics: As noted, in my latest column I grapple with the ethics of watching yet another Black person dying at the hands of police. The five men accused of viciously beating Tyre Nichols were Black officers. This led to conversations about how Black officers serve the interests of White supremacy by brutalizing Black people without mercy.

Writer James Baldwin comes to mind — especially this quote from his 1985 book “The Evidence of Things Not Seen”:

Black policemen were another matter. We used to say, “If you just must call a policeman” — for we hardly ever did — “for God’s sake, try to make sure it’s a White one.” A Black policeman could completely demolish you. He knew far more about you than a White policeman could and you were without defenses before this Black brother in uniform whose entire reason for breathing seemed to be his hope to offer proof that, though he was Black, he was not Black like you.
— James Baldwin, "The Evidence of Things Not Seen"

Nichols’s death was treated like a blockbuster premiere — a necropolitical thriller sure to spark ratings, views and, possibly even more thrilling, Black protest. I’m reminded of how George Floyd’s death was circulated everywhere. How his funeral, and Nichols’s this week, was put on display for public consumption. In the same book, Baldwin wrote this about the Atlanta child murders of 1979-1981:

Black death has never before elicited so much attention. The attention, the publicity, given to the slaughter becomes, itself, one more aspect of an unforgivable violation.
— James Baldwin

I, for one, can’t bring myself to participate much more in the violation Baldwin wrote of nearly four decades ago. Yes, these videos are powerful legal evidence for individual prosecution. But as long as meaningful police reform is off the table, they’re just trauma porn. If he were alive today, Baldwin would be shaking his head.

Fun Zone: Black women defying gravity

A slight antidote to the purging of amazing Black female writers from the AP course? Watching Black women literally soar in their chosen sports. This week, I enjoyed this thread of past moments that would have broken Twitter if it had existed way back when.

Like, Dominique Dawes left humanity behind with this routine:

And this, from French figure skater Surya Bonaly, whom I adored growing up:

Anyway, if you need a reminder that we Black women can soar above anything, here’s your proof.

Happy Black History Month!