Northwestern’s African American Studies department hosted a panel Wednesday evening to unpack the controversy behind the new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies, as well as Northwestern’s own African American Studies program and why Black studies have gained nationwide political attention.

The panel – “Who’s Afraid of (A.P.) African American Studies?” – spoke at University Hall, discussing how the College Board made multiple modifications to the newly-proposed course following Republican criticism, particularly from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The course will no longer discuss slavery reparations, the Black Lives Matter movement or present work from Black writers associated with critical race theory. DeSantis' administration did not ban the course, but rejected its implementation until it is revised to include "historically accurate content."

Roughly 40 people attended the panel in person, with 35 in attendance over zoom.

“The issue is bigger than A.P. African American Studies,” Mary Pattillo, Chair of African American Studies at NU, said. “The issue is really about Black study.”

The course will pilot in select high schools across the nation in 2024 for college credit, although 60 schools have already piloted the program without credit in fall of last year.

E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the School of Communication, discussed the importance of sexuality in the studies of Black people. He focused on how Black feminist leaders of the 18th and 19th century called attention to the exploitation of Black women’s bodies.

“When we think about the ways in which Black people were brought to this country, and used as breeders for profit, that already begins a conversation about sexuality and the ways in which Black bodies were utilized,” Johnson said.

Pattillo acknowledged the people on the College Board's development committee whose work is being censored. Many have doctorate degrees with backgrounds in African American history and other ethnic studies.

Johnson noted how DeSantis has brought the most backlash to Black studies, and how more people have begun researching the work of Black scholars to discredit them.

“No one was disparaging our work in this way before this DeSantis debacle,” Johnson said.

Weinberg fourth-year Alicia Webb, an African American Studies major, is writing her senior thesis on anti-critical race theory legislation in Texas. She spoke about her research on laws banning critical race theory from being taught in K-12 schools.

One big issue about these laws is they do not explicitly mention critical race theory, making them broad enough to limit discussion in schools on race, gender and society, Webb explained.

“What's most disappointing is how politics and personal ideas are interfering with student's education, particularly social studies education,” Webb said. “It doesn't teach students that they should be actively criticizing our society as we were as we saw being done with BLM protests.”

Jessica Hunter, a Weinberg fourth-year African American Studies and economics major, called the panel informative and told NBN she is looking forward to seeing what comes next for the future of this course, and the implementation of racial discussions in classrooms.

Hunter added that Black studies has taught her to be a critical thinker in ways she has not explored in other traditional disciplines. She took various A.P. courses in high school, and thinks this new course is a great addition to the program.

“When we learn about our history, no matter where we came from, we are empowered by those things and we seek to change those things, it challenges the status quo,” Hunter said. “We can reimagine things in the future and rebuild things that have traditionally centered white folks and lifted them up.”

Thumbnail image courtesy of African American Studies department.