Long before the College Board’s new Advanced Placement African American Studies course erupted into controversy on the national news, Evanston Township High School’s Kamasi Hill was helping decide the curriculum for the class.
Hill served on the development committee for the newest AP course along with 12 other high school teachers and college professors. He is currently teaching it to eight ETHS students, as the high school is one of 60 schools serving as a pilot program for the curriculum.
At the ETHS school board meeting Monday night, Feb. 6, Hill was asked to discuss his work, the AP pilot class being taught and the firestorm of criticism that has been leveled at the College Board since it announced about a week ago it would be removing parts of the curriculum.
He opened the discussion by noting how, even in 1835, South Carolina made it illegal to teach African Americans how to read and write because of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831.
“It’s always going to be a fight, and it just always will be,” Hill said. “And when I say it always will be, that doesn’t mean I don’t have any hope that it will never change. But I started the conversation talking about 1835. I can go back farther, but it’s always been this fight, and it’s not just DeSantis.”
The College Board has been painted as bowing to complaints from conservatives, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced in January he would ban the curriculum in Florida as too “woke” and a form of “indoctrination.”
Conservatives have objected to teaching concepts and themes such as the Black Lives Matter movement, intersectionality, queer theory and critical race theory.
The class is meant to cover the Black experience from 15th century Africa to the emerging identity of African Americans over the past 100 years, Hill said.
Curriculum cuts were discussed in December, Hill said, explaining that students will still have full access to materials involving topics that were not able to be included in the official curriculum.
“The unique thing about this course is that this course is not solely relying upon the end-of-year exam that the College Board typically gives. Twenty percent of the course, included in the final AP exam is a project where the students can write an essay on anything in the curriculum, or some derivation of the curriculum, that they choose,” Hill said.
“Which includes queer history, queer theory, intersectionality, Black Lives Matter, all the things that have been talked about as excluded. The students have complete access to not only studying it, learning it, but writing about it.”
And, as both Hill and District 202 Board Member Gretchen Livingston noted, this class highlights the joys and cultural experiences of Black people in the Americas, rather than simply focusing on the ugly, horrific experience of slavery that too often encompasses the entirety of African American history teaching.
This fall, the pilot course is to officially launch and will be available at another 500 schools across the country before a full, international launch in 2024.
Hill also gave a nod to the local history we have here in Evanston when it comes to Black civil rights, including a famous sit-in organized in 1969 by the late Hecky Powell, founder of Hecky’s Barbecue, who was protesting for the addition of a Black history class at the high school even then.
Several board members said how grateful they are that current students will be able to have access to that kind of education on Black history, and they noted how in their own experience, they never learned about things like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, for example.
“We all need to know our entire history because we’re destined to repeat the mistakes if we don’t understand the backstory,” board member Pat Maunsell said to Hill.
“As I read that framework and saw the levels of depth into African history and all the connections, you just did a wonderful job. And I need to say, as a person who majored in history, and my focus was North America, I didn’t learn most of what’s in that framework.”