Florida’s Rejection of African American Studies Reflects the Historical Fight for Black Education

Gov. Ron DeSantis calls African American studies “indoctrination.” It’s a battle that Black students have waged for decades.

Participants attend a Martin Luther King Day parade on Jan. 19, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This article was originally published on Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit news organization reporting for Black communities across the country.

Florida officials last week rejected a new Advanced Placement (AP) course on African American studies, calling it “woke indoctrination” that “significantly lacks educational value.” 

The state education board released a list of their concerns with the new course, which, like others in the AP program, allows high school students to earn college credit through an advanced curriculum that encourages collegiate-level critical thinking. On their list of concerns: works by Angela Davis (a “self-avowed Communist and Marxist”) and bell hooks (for her use of the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”). They also take issue with teaching about the Movement for Black Lives, because of the organizations’ stated objective to end “the war on Black trans, queer, gender non-conforming, and intersex people.”

Florida officials have said that their objection to the course is about a perceived “political agenda,” not the teaching of African American history. But the modern figures and movements that the state board objects to are extensions of Black history. That history is the story of Black activism, the ongoing, centuries-old struggle for rights and freedoms in the United States—and African American studies as a field is itself rooted in that effort. 

Black studies is a relatively young discipline born out of the civil rights and Black Power era of the 1960s. As Black students integrated into predominantly white colleges and universities, they began to challenge the white-washed curricula, demanding that they become more inclusive. 

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination was a turning point for many who were intent on seeing his dream of desegregation fully realized. Students who witnessed the barriers that had been broken during King’s life continued his legacy by taking a stand on college campuses, peacefully protesting and making a call for change. For those young Black people, gaining access to predominantly white institutions of higher learning was not enough; they began to press for Black studies, an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Black life and culture. 

We have the potential of raising an entire generation of Black children who will not be able to see themselves represented in their own state or in education.

Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones

Jan. 19, 2019, in Orlando. (Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“Black studies courses were needed to create counter images to those white value-oriented courses, while providing a rigorous intellectual curriculum rooted in the Black cultural, political, economic, literary, social, psychological, and historical reality,” San Francisco State University Africana studies professor Oba T’Shaka has written.  

The longest student strike in U.S. history led to the founding of the first Black studies department (now known as Africana studies) in 1968. For five months, students at San Francisco State College protested daily, screaming “On strike! Shut it down!” around campus. Becoming the first Black studies department did not come without challenges, and many students who were a part of the strike were not given amnesty for their participation. 

Student Nesbit Crutchfield spent 16 months in jail and earned a criminal record, according to SF State Magazine. Crutchfield said that record “follows me around to this day.” Student Hari Dillon spent nearly a year behind bars, according to the magazine, and John Levin received about six months.

But overall, the protest yielded results, and it was the foundation for many other students across the nation who began to challenge their universities to create Black studies classes and programs. 

“By 1971, more than 500 programs, departments and institutes [of Black studies] had been founded on four-year college campuses,” according to Africana studies scholar Noliwe Rooks.  

Just one year after the strike at San Francisco State College, students at the University of Florida demanded that their school offer similar programs, resulting in the establishment of an African American studies program. In 1971, the first certificates in African American studies were awarded; however, the school only had three African American faculty members out of 2,600 and only 387 Black students, according to the school.

Today, the University of Florida continues to offer degrees in the discipline, but the program has yet to reach departmental status. This reveals the challenging and complex nature of African American studies in Florida, a place where the flagship school calls African American studies one of its “fastest growing majors.” Meanwhile, the governor’s administration has rejected an AP course on the same subject, calling it “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly [lacking in] educational value.”  

DeSantis has made attacking education on race and other social issues a central thread of his administration. He has come under fire recently for his Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which limits teaching about race in K-12 schools. DeSantis compares such education to teaching hate, and in his 2021 remarks introducing the act, he said Floridians would no longer “endure CRT-inspired ‘training’ and indoctrination.” 

CRT, or critical race theory, is “an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society—from education and housing to employment and healthcare,” as defined by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The school of thought was created by legal scholars, but it has been minimized into a catchphrase used to describe any perspective on race that is contrary to the agenda of conservatives. There is nothing racist about CRT; instead, it studies racism as an integral part of America’s existence. 

Further complicating the question of teaching African American studies in Florida, the state has an African American History Task Force, created following the adoption of a state statute in 1994, which requires “the instruction of history, culture, experiences, and contributions of African Americans in the state’s K-12 curriculum.” The statute dictates that “students … develop an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping,” and that students learn “how the individual freedoms of persons have been infringed by slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination.”

These concepts are foundational to African American studies, an interdisciplinary curriculum that includes history. But in that context, the state board has declared that it “significantly lacks educational value.” 

As DeSantis’ previous stances on race and identity have done, this move could set a precedent for other conservative political leaders across the nation, who have been banning books and passing anti-CRT laws that restrict the representation of Black experiences in classrooms.

“This is just not a Florida problem,” state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D) told NPR. “Florida is just the testing ground, but people across the country should be concerned that legislatures and governors across the country are going to do exactly what Florida is doing. We have the potential of raising an entire generation of Black children who will not be able to see themselves represented in their own state or in education.”

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Ashley Robertson Preston is an assistant professor at Howard University, where she teaches United States history and public history. Preston is the author of the forthcoming book Mary McLeod Bethune the Pan-Africanist.