Halfway through a yearlong high school course in African American studies, Shannah Henderson-Amare asked her students to think about college — but with a question that many had never heard posed in a classroom before: Could they name the “Divine Nine,” the popular nickname for a group of the nation’s Black fraternities and sororities?
One senior immediately responded: “The Kappas!”
“The Ques!” others shouted out in succession.
For these New York City high school students, the exercise served as the gateway into a day’s discussion about historically Black colleges and universities, or H.B.C.U.s — their history, influence and modern relevance. The lesson was part of a new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.
The College Board, which administers Advanced Placement exams, introduced the class in the fall. It is being tested in about 60 schools this year, before becoming widely available in the fall of 2024. But the course was thrust into a national firestorm after Florida banned it, one of a series of moves the state has taken to restrict teaching about race.
Officials had argued that the approach to issues including Black queer studies, reparations and intersectionality was both unbalanced and illegal. Several other states, including Arkansas and Mississippi, have now launched their own reviews of the course’s material.
Still, other cities and states, including New Jersey, have pressed forward and plan to expand the class.
In New York City, Brooklyn Preparatory High School in Williamsburg is the only school offering the class this year. It’s unclear how many New York schools will provide the course next year, education officials said.
Students and families at Brooklyn Prep and elsewhere in the city have clamored for Black studies: Three years ago, they were among the nearly 30,000 people who signed a petition asking the College Board to create two classes on the subject. So far, the students in the course say it has been one the most valuable experiences of their school years, because it has allowed them to focus on Black life and history beyond the fundamentals of slavery and civil rights.
“What struck me was the conversations we started having: People that didn’t talk in class found their voice,” said Khia Williams, 18, a senior in the class, who added that previously she had only had similar conversations with her grandmother and other family members.
As unrest flared across the nation after the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020, teenagers at Brooklyn Prep, where about 40 percent of the students are Black and half are Latino, helped spearhead the petition for the course after expressing disappointment that there was no A.P. course devoted to the tough issues they were discussing at home and in their classrooms.
When the pilot course was initially announced, Brooklyn Prep was not among the high schools invited to join, but Ms. Henderson-Amare pushed for the school to be included. Nearly 170 teenagers were interested in enrolling in the class, almost a third of the school. (About 30 students ultimately enrolled.)
On a recent Thursday, during the lesson on H.B.C.U.s, which were once the primary path for Black Americans to obtain a higher education, the teacher guided the students through a discussion that touched on various issues.
One student connected the schools with the 20th-century “New Negro” movement and the tensions between differing views on Black advancement in America. Classmates weighed W.E.B. Du Bois’s emphasis on liberal arts education and a more confrontational approach to equal rights against Booker T. Washington’s belief that building vocational skills and enduring segregation would lead to gains.
The teenagers then discussed how old ideas still play a role in modern debates on Black social progress. Some discussed how their parents took pride in their culture but also told them to be careful about how they express their racial and ethnic identities, or to “code-switch,” in professional environments or predominately white social spaces.
“I feel like it’s a generational trauma type of thing,” a student responded. “My mom will always tell me ‘When you go outside, watch how you talk because people are going to look at you and judge you.’ She’s like, ‘I want you to do better for yourself than me.’”
Earlier in the year students had been particularly interested in lingering on a unit that focused on Black resistance, Ms. Henderson-Amare said. The room had erupted into animated conversations during lessons on groups like the Maroons, enslaved Africans who lived in places including Jamaica, Colombia and Suriname and who had escaped to freedom centuries ago.
The students also analyzed the meaning of the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely known as the Black national anthem; many were not fully aware of the themes of resilience, perseverance and struggle in the lyrics.
Leon Woolford, 17, a senior at the school, said he had realized that his understanding of even better-known parts of Black history was incomplete.
He had been surprised during a recent lesson on the Freedom Riders, whose bus rides across the South in 1961 challenged the segregation of public transportation and set the stage for major civil rights legislation: “I thought I at least knew something, and I had the totally wrong idea,” he said.
In elementary and middle school, Mr. Woolford said, he had participated in discussions much less often. But when the A.P. class delved into the poem “We Wear the Mask,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, about the ways Black people can hide pieces of their identities and struggles from society, he said it attached “so much more importance to what we do every day.”
The students have pushed for the chance to explore issues beyond those in the course. Kwanzaa, for example, is not mentioned in the curriculum. But the class commemorated the holiday in December, and students created projects on the seven principles central to the weeklong celebration.
Students said the A.P. course had led many of them to consider their future in new ways.
Toward the end of the lesson on H.B.C.U.s, Ms. Henderson-Amare asked the class to weigh the merits of those kinds of schools against predominantly white institutions, and of academic higher education versus career and technical learning as potential pathways to a better life.
One student asked, “What does it even mean to have a good life?”
The teenagers quickly began chiming in, considering the importance of a high-income career compared with other routes to a rich and satisfied life, until it was time to head to their next class.
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