High school senior Lena Gay learned about Black history mostly through her family, but there were still gaps in her knowledge. In school through 11th grade, her teachers had glossed over the subject and focused on well-known figures, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. 

“I learned most of Black history from being Black and just from at home,” said Gay, who attends Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

This school year, she’s had something new to share with her mother when she comes home each day. She’s enrolled in a pilot AP African American Studies course, a rare offering for students anywhere. Allderdice is one of about 60 high schools nationwide that’s piloting the course this academic year. 

The course intends to explore “the diversity of Black communities in the United States within the broader context of Africa and the African diaspora,” according to the official course framework from the College Board, the nonprofit that developed it.

At Allderdice, several students in the course said they’ve gained a deeper understanding of American history, a greater sense of pride in their identity and a more tangible connection to their roots and culture. But they’re also attuned to the backlash that the course has ignited beyond the walls of their classroom. 

In January, Florida’s education department initially rejected the course, with the commissioner claiming it represented “woke indoctrination masquerading as education.” Officials from at least four other Republican-led states — Arkansas, Virginia, Mississippi and North Dakota — have said they will review the course to determine if it can be taught, given their laws and policies limiting education on racial issues.

And in February, the College Board released the framework for the official course, leaving out several themes that were present in the pilot. Topics such as Black feminist literary thought and Queer studies were excluded, as were the voices of several Black scholars. Critics on the left have claimed the College Board altered the course due to political pressure, but the nonprofit has asserted that the core revisions were made prior to Florida’s pushback. 

Florida’s education department has asked the College Board to submit the revised course for its consideration.

The national debate surrounding the course has left students in the Allderdice class feeling frustrated. They emphasized that students are choosing to learn Black history — instead of being “indoctrinated” — and that the course is helping to tell a fuller, more complex version of American history.  

“I’ve had some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in my whole high school experience in this pilot, with my class, because we’re just given the opportunity to speak on history that hasn’t been talked about,” senior Quincy Peterson said. Asked what he would say to critics of the course, he said: “I would pose the question: What about Black history bothers you?”

‘You’ve got to dive into all of it’

Allderdice actively sought to be a part of the pilot, enabled by the fact that it had the personnel who fulfilled the criteria to teach the course. The College Board required schools to have educators who were extensively educated in African American studies. 

That person was Brian Nolte, a social studies teacher who has taught the non-AP African American History class at Allderdice for the last couple of years. Nolte, who has a master’s degree in history with a focus on under-represented cultures, also underwent additional training over the summer to qualify for teaching the AP course. 

As students got settled at their desks one Tuesday afternoon in March, Nolte’s classroom glowed with the projector’s display of the day’s lesson. The class was embarking on the course’s fourth unit, and that day, they were learning about the négritude and negrismo movements.

“What does it mean? What is négritude?” Nolte asked his class of about 25 students, after he took attendance. 

“A Negro with an attitude?” one student volunteered. 

“That was a good guess,” Nolte replied, prompting his students further. 

Négritude was a political and social movement that protested colonialism, and it originated among French-speaking Caribbean and African writers in the 1930s. Aimé Césaire, a poet and politician from Martinique, coined the term and co-founded the movement — and his essay, “Discourse on Colonialism,” was a topic of discussion that Tuesday.

“What is Césaire talking about?” Nolte asked. 

One student spoke up. “Everyone hear that? We got that? Say it again,” Nolte said.

“No one colonizes innocently,” the student repeated. 

“Césaire highlights very poignantly the violence that has to come while colonizing. And what’s important to understand about the violence is that it doesn’t just happen once,” Nolte told his students. “Now, consider this: What happens to your culture?”

“It gets stripped from you, or they try to strip it from you,” said one student.

“It gets stolen,” said a second.

“It dies,” said a third.

“Exactly,” Nolte said. “This cultural assimilation has been perpetuated over generations, over centuries of time — follow? What point do you stop and try to reclaim yourself, your roots, your culture? At what point, when do you say: ‘Enough is enough?’” 

Nolte’s course is largely shaped by the College Board’s pilot framework, but he’s weaved in his own supplementary material. In an interview after class, he said the course has allowed students to engage in open and, at times, uncomfortable conversations about source material. 

“We don’t shy away from it,” he said. “History is history. It doesn’t matter how painful it is, it doesn’t matter how hurtful, or how beautiful it is, you’ve got to dive into all of it.”

Sparking discussion

Like Gay, other students in Nolte’s class didn’t have an in-depth education on Black history prior to taking the course. In the eighth grade, Amaya Dorman’s social studies teacher spent more than a month teaching Black history, but that was only because she was passionate about telling her predominantly Black class about their collective past. 

Alaina Roberts, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, has seen that lack of information in her classes on African American history. She estimated that at least 75% of her students say they learned, incorrectly, that slavery existed solely in the South. Her students are “always so surprised, so horrified,” when the class covers topics they hadn’t been exposed to before.

She views the AP African American Studies course as a way to introduce more students to these topics earlier. “I think it’s unfortunate that the study of history has been politicized in this way,” she said. 

Allderdice students wait to speak with teacher Brian Nolte after their AP African American Studies course. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/ PublicSource)

Several students said they’ve taken the course’s lessons outside of the classroom and into their homes. Natalie Lund told her family about the Harlem Renaissance (she and her father share a love of jazz), and Jamie Coles spoke with their mother, a teacher, about the removal of African-American Vernacular English from students’ written work.

“It’s allowed for more open conversations about our perceptions of Blackness, and how we perceive ourselves in America,” Peterson said. “I think it’s been a tool that I can use to start really deep or open conversations with my family.”

The group valued the slave narratives they read as well as the discussions they had about the slave trade’s impacts on Africa. Before the class started this fall, Peterson didn’t think it would be as intensive. 

His favorite part was learning about the Reconstruction period. He had never discussed the topic in other history classes, which he said often jump from the end of slavery to the Civil Rights Movement. He didn’t know there was Black representation in Congress during that time. 

“We’re never really taught about that gap,” he said. “I think, for me, it allowed me to see a bigger picture and a fuller story.”

Pressure, guilt and power

The College Board intends for schools to offer the official course in fall 2024. Because Allderdice is teaching the pilot version, the February changes have not impacted Nolte’s class. He said the official course doesn’t reflect many changes, and the revisions mainly involve the use of different sources and experts. 

“Every pilot program, every course that AP has ever put out, has always been changed,” he said. “These things happen. I think it’s just a matter of optics in this case.”

But some students felt that conservative political pressure influenced the College Board’s revisions to the course. While they know that the curriculum will change from the pilot to the official course, Dorman said that removing content to cater to conservative ideals is painful. 

“I just want to learn and absorb history, especially when we have never been given the opportunity to do that before,” they said. 

Florida’s criticism of the course comes about a year after the state passed a law banning any instruction that compels students to feel guilty about historical discrimination by members of their race. Allderdice students Syd Kaplan and Lund, who are both white, said the AP course doesn’t force white students to feel guilty about the past or make them feel attacked. Even if it does, Dorman said, the appropriate response to potential discomfort is to find a path forward, not to pretend that history didn’t happen.

Many students urged the critics of the course to sit in on a class to see that the course isn’t harmful. Nolte agreed and said every student should be entitled to learn about their roots and history. 

“If knowledge is power, and we take away knowledge or the opportunity to access that knowledge, then we’re taking away power from our students,” he said.

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at lajja@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Kalilah Stein.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.