The College Board has revealed the framework for its new Advanced Placement African American Studies course, which will be offered to high schoolers across the U.S. starting in 2024 following smaller-scale pilot programs. As part of the college-level course, there will be a focus on visual art—but almost all of the work required to be viewed by students will be by deceased artists.
The course charts several millennia worth of history, with nearly all of it from the 16th century onward, and intends to survey the breadth of the African American experience, from its origins in early West African empires to the current moment.
Yet a conservative backlash appears to have moved the College Board to remove some significant components of the course, including focuses on the Black Lives Matter movement, queerness, mass incarceration, and reparations. After Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he would ban the course in his state, the College Board seems to have shorn the class of these required topics, which are now merely proposed as material “sample projects,” and even added one suggested topic about “Black conservatism.”
The work and theory of several major Black scholars known for positing radical thinking, like bell hooks, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Roderick Ferguson, have also been scrubbed from the course’s requirements.
The framework for the course, which was unveiled by the College Board on Wednesday, is broken down into four units, each of which is paired with required reading, viewing, and listening intended to lure in the arts. When it comes to visual art, much of the material has been widely exhibited in museums across the country, though some lesser-known works are also listed.
Jacob Lawrence’s paintings recur most frequently, appearing in units called “Freedom, Enslavement, and Resistance” and “The Practice of Freedom.” Students are expected to look at examples from Lawrence’s famed “Migration Series” (1940–41), which charts the mass movement of African Americans from the South to the North and West during the early 20th century, and his series from the late ’80s about Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led a slave rebellion in Haiti that ultimately helped the country achieve independence from France and establish the world’s first Black republic.
Elizabeth Catlett’s art is enlisted in service of a section about the Black Power movement. Her 1969 print Negro es Bello II, featuring two Black faces shown twice alongside rows of emblems reading “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL,” is intended to highlight “the transnational and diasporic reach of the Black Is Beautiful and the Black Power movements and participates in their global circulation,” according to the course’s framework.
The work of Wifredo Lam, a Cuban-born artist who achieved fame in Paris in the early 20th century, appears in the context of a section about the Négritude and Negrismo movements, with his art used to help describe the latter. His 1943 painting The Jungle (La Jungla), housed in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, contains a group of figures modeled on African and Pacific Islander masks ensconced in a thick layer of flora; it’s meant to show how Lam drew on his identity as a person of African and Chinese descent living in Cuba.
That same section also requires students to view Loïs Mailou Jones’s 1938 painting Les Fetiches, in which a group of African masks appear to be set atop one another. Jones worked in France, where she became a core member of the Négritude movement, and through her work “conveys strength, beauty, and protection in African ancestral heritage,” per the College Board.
An entire section is devoted to photography at the turn of the 20th century, with examples of James Van Der Zee’s pictures of Harlem residents required for students.
Other well-known works that appear in the course include a 16th-century Edo pendant portraying the Queen Mother that can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a 19th-century storage jar by the enslaved potter David Drake, whose work figures in an exhibition currently on view at that same institution.
There are also some works likely to be less familiar to many viewers scattered throughout. Medicine and Transport, a 1942–44 painting by Thelma Johnson Streat, is expected to be viewed in the first class, which is themed around the nature of Black history itself. The King’s Fountain, a ca. 1570 painting by an anonymous Flemish painter that portrays “the substantial presence of Africans and the range of roles they played in urban Iberian port cities like Lisbon,” is in a section titled “Global Africans.”
When works by living artists are covered by the course, their recent works are used to illustrate the past. Willie Cole’s 1997 print Stowage is in a section about slave ships and their architecture; in place of those vessels, it portrays an iron, a symbol of “the history of his ancestors—Africans brought through the Middle Passage to labor in the homes of their enslavers.” Bisa Butler’s 2021 painting I Go to Prepare a Place for You, an expressionistic portrait of Harriet Tubman, is to be shown alongside photography of the abolitionist from when she was still alive.
These are just the required works, however, which mean that the course’s practitioners could show their students far more than just this. And there are hints that the class could indeed include more art, with a suggested project about African American performance art and an entire section devoted to the Black Arts Movement.
The framework does not mention a range of famed Black artists who have made their mark on history, including major figures the past like Henry Ossawa Tanner, Edmonia Lewis, Augusta Savage, Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas, Emma Amos, Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, Charles White, Beauford Delaney, and Bob Thompson. It also does not mention a number of important living artists, including Faith Ringgold, David Hammons, Howardena Pindell, Betye Saar, Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall, Amy Sherald, Glenn Ligon, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, Dawoud Bey, Carrie Mae Weems, Simone Leigh, and more.
Museums, which have helped steward Black history over the years, are also largely unmentioned, with institutions like the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Studio Museum in Harlem not appearing in the required material.