#LegalizeBlackHistory: Past Lessons to Resist Florida’s Ban on AP African American Studies—and the College Board’s Capitulation

By Jesse Hagopian

Originally Published at The Progressive

“The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) does not approve the inclusion of the Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course,” read a memo from the agency on January 12. “As presented, the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”

FDOE’s decree casts an ominous shadow over the entire discipline of Black history by suggesting that a course in the subject “significantly lacks educational value.” One rightwing commentator called the new AP class perverse—and I’m not making this up—because it was created by scholars of African American studies. “It shouldn’t be a surprise that an AP curriculum developed with the input of practitioners of African American studies at the university level would contain all the same perversities and warped ideas,” Rich Lowry wrote in the New York Post

As ludicrous as this argument is, unfortunately, it appears that the College Board—the creator of the AP class—agrees. After the FDOE and Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis criticized the content of the course, the College Board decided to celebrate Black History Month by officially releasing the curriculum on February 1, stripped of the works of leading scholars of Black history. Some of the scholars stricken from the curriculum include Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation; Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University and a founding scholar of critical race theory (CRT); Roderick Ferguson, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University; and the late bell hooks, who was a leading theorist of critical pedagogy and Black feminism. 

College Board CEO David Coleman launched a massive public relations campaign designed to reassure the public that the decision to censor the curriculum had nothing to do with Florida’s ban. “Far before the governor spoke up,” Coleman claimed, “we’d announced that we were going to release the revised framework on the first day of Black History Month.” But as James Baldwin, one of the authors whose works were removed from the list of required readings, once said, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” 

Likewise, Taylor of Northwestern wrote, “It is certainly believable that the preliminary version of the class would have been revised, but it is unbelievable that rightwing complaints did not influence the final outcome.” While the College Board clearly would have made some revisions to the course, as is to be expected with the creation of any course, Taylor is correct in asserting that the final content of the course was modified in response to the GOP’s campaign against antiracist teaching in Florida and elsewhere. 

The truth is, the College Board generates more than $490 million from AP classes, and they would lose money if their curriculum was banned by states like Florida—as De Santis has now threatened to do after disagreement over even the new, watered-down version. Moreover, even if we accept the official position that the College Board was not swayed by intense anti-critical race theory campaigns, it still begs the question: Why did they expel some of the curriculum’s most valuable content?

Subject matter expunged from the course includes discussions of the Black Lives Matter movement, the debate over reparations, mass incarceration, and the Black Queer experience. As Newsweek reported, “Passages that previously cited racial attitudes, stereotyping, and white superiority in early American history have been rewritten or deleted, and some passages that previously implicated early European colonists in racism and aiding in destructive Native American warfare have been softened and replaced with more passive language.”

The censorship of so many aspects of the Black experience is a betrayal of Black students, teachers, and even many of the Black advisors who worked on the original curriculum. “This was pure cowardice,” wrote Joshua Myers, an adviser to the development of the AP course and an associate professor of Africana studies at Howard University. “And it shows how far liberals will go to confront the creeping fascism in this country. And that’s not very far at all.” 

This debate over teaching Black history comes in the context of forty-two states that have introduced legislation or enacted policies that require teachers to deceive students about race, gender, and sexuality. Many of the bills prohibit teaching that the “United States is fundamentally racist or sexist” or ban any teaching that could make students “feel discomfort” when discussing racism or sexism. Eighteen states have imposed these anti-history gag laws, and they aren’t confined to just the South or to “red” states. 

School librarians have also come under attack with new laws around the country that threaten them with jail time or fines for providing students with books that a parent finds objectionable. Between July 2021 and June 2022, books were banned 2,532 times in public schools across the United States, with 1,648 unique book titles banned during that period; most had themes that discussed race or sexuality. In early February, school officials ordered teachers in the Florida counties of Manatee and Duval County to hide books from classrooms or face being charged with a third-degree felony, which carries up to five year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine. 

These Black history deniers, in the same breath they use to decry cancel culture, call for the canceling of any book or educator that diverges from the orthodoxy of American exceptionalism. Perhaps I don’t need to persuade you that something is profoundly wrong with a society so terrified of its past that it endeavors to strangle history, bury it beneath the earth, and not even leave an epitaph to allow young people to recognize the past or appreciate their heritage. “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” remarked Black teacher, journalist, and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett. 

Light has long been a metaphor for the freeing power of truth, one especially invoked by the Black Freedom Struggle. In Freedom Dreams, Robin D. G. Kelley writes, “We absolutely need light: the light of social movements (‘I’ve got the light of freedom’), the light of hope (‘facing a rising sun/of a new day begun’) the light of spirit (‘this little light of mine/I’m gonna let it shine’).” Gwendolyn Brooks, the influential twentieth century American poet and the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize, wrote the poem truth, which begins:

And if sun comes

How shall we greet him?

Shall we not dread him,

Shall we not fear him

After so lengthy a

Session with shade?

The truth is that sunrise, illuminating what was previously too dim to see. Yet billionaire-funded think tanks assert that anti-racist education is instead indoctrination and that their rejection of teaching about systemic racism is not about banning Black history. When Republican Bryan Avila’s House Bill 7, the “Stop WOKE Act,” was passed in Florida’s House of Representatives, he declared, “Nothing in this bill bans the teaching of historical facts about slavery, about sexism, about racial oppression, about racial segregation, and about racial discrimination. Absolutely nothing.” 

Like Avila, many of the leading rightwing demagogues who have sponsored or passed legislation banning an honest education about race have repeatedly claimed that they have no objection to teaching Black history, including the history of slavery and segregation—they say they merely object to teaching about systemic racism. But slavery and segregation are the foundations of structural racism in America, and the history of Black people cannot be taught honestly without examining the ways systemic racism has shaped their experience.

Take Governor DeSantis’s explanation for why the AP African American Studies class should be banned: “This course on Black history, what are one—what’s one of the lessons about? Queer theory. Now, who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids.”

The vicious ignorance of DeSantis’s statement exposes either his limited historical knowledge of Black history or his cruel disdain for it. DeSantis asks us, “Who would say that queer theory is an important part of Black history?” Try one of the many legendary Black LGBTQ+ artists, musicians, authors, and activists who have transformed U.S. culture and politics—people such as Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Pauli Murray, Audre Lorde, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Marsha P. Johnson, and so many others. 

The inextricable link between Black history and queer theory is glaringly obvious to those who have studied social movements. The Harlem Renaissance cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the flourishing Black queer culture and nightlife that was a defining feature of the era, including the drag ballroom scene. The annual Pride Festivals that occur in scores of cities around the country originated from a 1969 rebellion led by Black and brown queer people when police raided the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

The current attack on Black LGBTQ+ history follows DeSantis’s so-called “Parental Rights in Education” bill—better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—which prohibits classroom instruction related to gay, lesbian, or transgender issues, and sexuality or gender identity more broadly. Florida is one of six states that censor discussions of LGBTQ+ people or issues in school, and one of eighteen that bans transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. These attacks are having a truly harmful impact on schools, such as the Miami-Dade School Board’s refusal to recognize October as LGBTQ+ History Month out of concern that it would violate the state’s Don’t Say Gay law.

These bills dehumanize the LGBTQ+ teachers, students, and families who make up the school community. “The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” tweeted Governor DeSantis’s spokesperson, Christina Pushaw. “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” 

This reprehensible rhetoric, labeling queer people and their allies as pedophiles, is extremely dangerous. Floridians know well what can happen when LGBTQ+ people are seen as less than human: the deadliest homophobic attack in U.S. history occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016, when a gunman killed forty-nine people and wounded fifty-three others.


Conflating queer teachers with pedophiles has a long history in the United States and specifically in Florida. During the late 1940s and 50s, the second Red Scare (characterized by the attacks led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others on anyone they wanted to discredit by labeling them communists) was accompanied by the Lavender Scare—the repression of LGBTQ+ people and their mass firing from government service. The combination of the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare led to the firing of thousands of teachers around the country. 

Karen Graves explains in her book And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida’s Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers that between 1957 and 1963, Florida officials led a homophobic crusade against queer schoolteachers that resulted in their interrogation, firing, and the revocation of their teaching certificates. These educators were forced to appear before committees composed of all men from the office of the superintendent of public instruction, law enforcement, and an investigation committee.

This committee was established by the Florida legislature in 1956 to scrutinize “organizations, persons, or groups whose activities would constitute a violation of Florida laws, violence, or be inimical to the well being and orderly pursuit of business and personal activities of a majority of citizens.” While the legislation didn’t directly state which organizations would be targeted by the committee’s anti-communist attack, it was well known it was formed to dismantle the Black freedom struggle—including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights organizations working for desegregation. As Jeff Woods wrote in Black Struggle, Red Scare, “Segregation and anti-Communism acted as the mutually reinforcing components of an extreme Southern nationalism.”

Educators in Florida were often pressured to name their sexual partners and asked outrageous questions such as, “How long have you had homosexual tendencies?,” “When was the first time you engaged in homosexual acts?,” “How often do you have sex with another woman [or man]?,” What caused you to become a homosexual?,” and “What kinds of sex acts do you practice?” By April of 1963, the committee had revoked the licenses of seventy-one teachers and had identified another one hundred “suspects.” As one woman who lived through these witch hunts recalled in the book And They Were Wonderful Teachers:

“All the women I know who were teachers had been called into the principal’s office and questioned for several hours. Sometimes there were other authority figures there. Sometimes they had been yanked right out of their classes and marched down to the principal’s office. They were told that they were “under suspicion” because of their marital status. Now those women still lived in fear.”

Just as the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare were used to purge teachers from the late-1940s through the early-1960s, the attacks on what history deniers have labeled “critical race theory” and “gender ideology” are being used today to fire educators and exclude discussions about structural racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia.

In March 2021, the Duval County school district in Florida announced that award-winning high school teacher Amy Donofrio would be removed from her classroom while they investigated “several allegations.” Her crime? She had put up a “Black Lives Matter” sign in her classroom.

Donofrio tells me in an interview that she believes Black students needed to hear that their lives were valuable to their teachers in a school originally named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee and that was for whites only until 1971. “It’s very easy for a white teacher who has a good relationship with Black students to assume your Black students feel safe with you,” Donofrio says. “But when they have had unfathomable experiences [with racism] like that, you realize how much it truly takes to earn trust.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center announced in April it was suing the Duval County school district on behalf of Donofrio. In May, she heard then-Florida Department of Education Commissioner, Richard Corcoran, on the news touting the bill while bragging that he was firing her. “I’m getting sued right now in Duval County, which is in Jacksonville, because there was an entire classroom memorialized to Black Lives Matter,” Corcoran said during a presentation at Hillsdale College (a private conservative Christian liberal arts college in Michigan). “We made sure she was terminated and now we’re being sued by every one of the liberal left groups who say it’s a freedom of speech issue.”

When I asked Donofrio about this moment, she was incredulous: “That’s how I found out I was fired . . . then he announced that he was coming up to Jacksonville two weeks later to sign a bill to ban teaching the truth about racism. And he did it.”

Not unlike white supremacists of the past who banned Black people from learning to read and write, Florida now bans children from taking courses to help them become racially literate. Florida’s history deniers don’t want students to learn about the state’s devastating history of racial violence—from the Newberry lynchings in 1916 to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012—nor about the awe-inspiring stories of Black resilience and resistance.


Steven Martin/Flickr: A Black Seminole reenactor in Fort Cooper State Park, Florida.

If Florida students grew up learning the complete story of, for example, the Rosewood Massacre in Rosewood, Florida, then they would be much more likely to understand that structural racism has long been a reality in our society. But as Lizzie Jenkins, the niece of a Rosewood school teacher, recalled long ago, “It has been a struggle telling this story over the years because a lot of people don’t want to hear about this kind of history. But Mama told me to keep it alive, so I keep telling it.” The Rosewood massacre began on New Year’s Day in 1923 when a white woman in the town falsely accused a Black man of beating her. A white posse soon formed and began a lynching and burning campaign that destroyed the rural Black community.

If Floridian children were allowed an in-depth study of Black history, they would also learn that it cannot be reduced to oppression and that there are breathtakingly beautiful stories of struggle and creativity that also define the African American experience. Consider the story of the Black Seminoles. Between 1693 until 1850, the Black Seminoles in Florida were created by runaway enslaved Africans who united with Native Americans to form an incredible maroon society. 

“They were mostly Gullah fugitives who escaped from the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia and joined with the newly formed Seminole groups who broke away from the Muskogee or Creek people,” according to Black Past, a historical society dedicated to preserving African American history. “Both groups were fleeing the decimation of their cultures and people by European-brought violence and disease and sought refuge in the Florida forests.”

The Black Seminoles raided plantations to free enslaved people and defended themselves during three wars against the U.S. government. Their victory at Lake Okeechobee became the most decisive U.S. defeat in more than four decades of Florida warfare. In June 1837, Major General Sidney Thomas Jesup described the danger posed by the Seminole and Black alliance in Florida during the second of the three wars: “The two races, the Negro and the Indian, are rapidly approximating; they are identical in interests and feelings . . . Should the Indians remain in this territory the Negroes among them will form a rallying point for runaway Negroes from the adjacent states; and if they remove, the fastness of the country will be immediately occupied by Negroes.” 

This Black and Native solidarity was mighty indeed. While the U.S. government managed to remove a large number of Black Seminoles from Florida to Oklahoma, the Black Seminoles never surrendered or signed a treaty to relinquish their homeland.

I have taught several lessons in my own high school social studies classroom about the Black Seminoles and have seen how students come to celebrate Black and Native solidarity in opposition to colonization—precisely what the history deniers fear. Black history is being outlawed because it contains too many stories of solidarity and uplift that can aid social struggles today. Stories such as how the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first publicly performed in 1900 by 500 schoolchildren in Jacksonville, Florida. The school principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the words and Johnson’s brother J. Rosamond put them to music. Generations of students have since sung its verses, including the lines:

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.


James Weldon Johnson

With the imagery of bringing the lessons of history into the sunlight to aid the struggles for freedom in the present, the song increased in popularity over the years until the NAACP adopted it as the Black National Anthem in 1919.

Florida has a rich history of Black imagination and struggle that all students have a right to learn. Yet conservatives charge that teaching this history is about shaming white students. 

The idea that teachers are deliberately shaming white kids is useful propaganda to increase the GOP voter turnout in elections, but it is not a practice of social justice teachers. These educators know that nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” as the great women’s rights and civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer put it. 

Hamer’s conviction about freedom isn’t only an inclusive sentiment, it’s also clear-eyed analysis. While people of color face the harshest deprivations in a society replete with structural racism, the elites who hoard the wealth at the top of society don’t care to share much with the vast majority of white people, either. This means that social justice educators are also dedicated to empowering white students with the history of white antiracists who built multiracial justice movements. White students deserve to learn about white people who have joined movements for racial justice and to learn that, although they are privileged in a racist society, there would be more benefits to living in a true multiracial democracy.

For all the rhetoric of the history deniers, their real fear isn’t that truth-teachers are shaming white kids. Their primary concern is that educators are teaching students to be proud of the tradition of antiracist white people who have joined in social movements for racial justice. For example, on June 18, 1964, in St. Augustine, Florida, white and Black protesters risked their lives at a “swim-in” to desegregate the pool of the Monson Motor Lodge—a protest credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act later that year. 

Especially since the 2020 uprising for Black lives, students of all races are having conversations about Black history and what the role of white people can be in the struggle against racism. “Especially when it comes to specifics with slavery and stuff like that, we would all talk about the underlying causes and break it down during lunch or after school,” Jade Thompson, a Florida high school student, told The Washington Post. “We’d be like, ‘How did this happen?’ And it would really be like an intellectual conversation . . . It wasn’t like: ‘Oh my God, Becca. How could your family do this? This is your fault.’ Nobody was trying to make people feel guilty about history. We were just trying to understand and figure things out.” Teachers should be supporting students in these kinds of conversations by teaching the lessons of the Black Freedom Struggle and helping them understand that there is an important tradition of multiracial solidarity that white people today have a choice to either join or reject.

That choice presents itself clearly today in the struggle around Florida’s rejection of AP African American Studies and the College Board’s decision to throw so much of the Black experience down the memory hole. 

While the original AP African American Studies curriculum was worth defending, I have taught AP U.S. history and have been deeply troubled by the way the AP end-of-course exam distorts students’ understanding of history. Because AP classes are organized in large part around passing multiple-choice exams at the conclusion of the course, they communicate to students that history is about eliminating wrong answer choices rather than about discovering the incredible stories of the past that can help us eliminate injustices today. For this reason, it is absurd to imagine that AP classes are a leftwing plot; social justice educators have long opposed the College Board’s narrowing of the curriculum to what is on a test. 


Bettmann/Teaching For Change/Flickr: The “swim-in” at the Monson Motor Lodge in June 1964. The motel owner infamously poured acid into the pool as protesters swam.

Standardized tests began being used widely in American public schools in the 1920s, at the urging of eugenicists whose pseudoscience proclaimed that white males were naturally smarter. One of these early eugenicists was Carl Brigham, a professor at Princeton University and author of the white supremacist manifesto, A Study of American Intelligence. Brigham developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known as the SAT. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to “intelligence testing”—especially in service of ranking the races—came from leading African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Long. Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” noted in 1924 what today we would call the “zip code effect”—that what standardized tests really measure is a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture. 

With the College Board whitewashing its new course, Florida banning Black history, and so many states and school districts around the country outlawing honest discussions of systemic racism, there is an urgent need for a Black Studies and Ethnic Studies uprising. The Black Lives Matter at School movement has helped to make the struggle for antiracist curriculum a focal point for thousands of teachers around the country. BlackPast.org, Rethinking Schools, Learning for Justice, the Zinn Education Project, and the 1619 Project are some of the many other initiatives that are helping to tell the truth about Black history. 

No one’s history should be illegal, and if Black history is any guide, a great resistance to this injustice will rise in Florida and around the country. Florida has the incredible young people, educators, and organizers needed to build this resistance—groups like the Dream Defenders, Power U, All Y’all Social Justice Collective, and educators like Marvin Dunn, who leads “Teach the Truth” tours where he takes high school students to sites of historic importance to the Black community. If you want to understand why the side of truth will ultimately prevail, read the declaration that Jeri Shaffer, a middle school social studies teacher in Cantonment, Florida,  made when she signed the Pledge to Teach the Truth:

“I’m willing to die on this hill. I cannot meet benchmarks for U.S. History or Civics if we remove all discussion about racial bias, as the new legislation is worded in Florida. How can I teach the Civil War, Emancipation, or the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments without discussing racial motivations?”

The rhetorical questions posed by Shaffer have such an obvious answer that it’s ridiculous she even had to ask it. Yet by posing this question she has turned the light of truth upon the history deniers. It’s time to lift every voice with this demand: legalize Black history.  

Jesse Hagopian is a high school teacher and on the staff of the Zinn Education Project where he helps to lead the Teaching for Black Lives campaign based on the book he co-edited with the same name. He also serves on the Black Lives Matter at School steering committee, is a Rethinking Schools editor, and is the director of the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award. Jesse is the author of the forthcoming book from Haymarket Books, Teach Truth: The Attack on Critical Race Theory and the Struggle for Antiracist Education, and a contributing author to 101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed U.S. History and to Voices of a People’s History. You can connect with him on his website or Twitter.

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