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Lisa Hill wears many hats at the Hamden Hall Country Day School in Connecticut — from chairing its History Department to serving as the director of inclusion, equity and diversity. This year, she is also preparing to welcome a select group of students to her inaugural Advanced Placement African American Studies course. 

Hamden Hall, which offers elementary, middle and high school programs, is among 63 schools across the country participating in the pilot of College Board’s newest addition to its Advanced Placement courses. The AP African American Studies initiative, which has been over a year in the making, arrives 70 years after the first AP tests were administered in 1952 — and is the first ethnic studies AP class to date. According to the College Board, AP African American Studies was the product of extensive conversation and ongoing partnerships between the College Board and various cultural and academic institutions across the country. 

“We’re calling it AP African American Studies as opposed to [African American] history, because it will … represent different disciplines and allow us to examine themes from a variety of perspectives,” Hill said.  “African American history did not start with enslavement.” 

Though the specific curriculum is still under development and revision, the College Board aims to take students through a deep-dive examination of the African Diaspora and the way it has charted American politics and culture, while also fostering discussions on intersectional approaches to tackling discrimination in today’s world. Like all other AP courses, students enrolled in AP African American Studies can choose to take a cumulative exam at the end of the school year — and for this particular course, to potentially earn credit at approximately 35 U.S. colleges, so far.

Hill acknowledged that the course came at a time when the nation was starkly divided over how, and whether, to teach race in the classroom. As of early 2021, 42 states have considered or taken steps to limit race-based instruction, and 19 have passed concrete laws and rules.

“It’s a course that’s designed to teach facts and real events — not to push an agenda, proselytize anyone … or force any type of overarching philosophy,” Hill said, citing recent controversy over teaching critical race theory in schools. “This is not a CRT course, and the [Hamden Hall] parents who know about the course have been very excited.”

At Hamden Hall, the course is only available to high school seniors whose administrative records indicate promise in balancing the intense workload of AP classes. Rules of selection vary among schools, however, and the College Board is hoping to expand the opportunity to many more high schools by the 2023-2024 academic year. 

For Elsa Holahan, a senior at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, hearing news about the AP course brings relief. Though her school is not one of the 63 offering the AP course, she is taking a pilot ethnic studies class called “Black/African American & Latino/Puerto Rican Studies” — thanks to Connecticut’s recent mandate of Black and Latinx curriculum in its high schools. According to Justin Harmon, the director of communications and marketing for New Haven Public Schools, New Haven high schools currently do not offer the new AP course, though it is “something that [they] will explore offering in the future.” 

“Connecticut’s requirement … affirms that the histories of Black and Latinx studies are worthy of scholarship,” Holahan said. “I’ve often felt denied a well-rounded and multinarrative history class throughout my high school education.”  

Manuel Camacho, who sits next to Holahan in class at Hillhouse, called the course a “revelation” — reaffirming that it is a subversion from the traditional structure of history classes where “variations of the same stories” are told every year, except with just a “bit more detail.” After learning about the history of Thanksgiving through Indigenous primary sources, he thought back to his elementary school days when the holiday was portrayed as a costumed celebration of a “peace treaty” between Indigenous people and Europeans. 

Though there is no single textbook that covers the entire AP African American Studies curriculum, Hill said that teachers of the course — in collaboration with College Board and other academic institutions — have “done the big homework” in gathering a variety of multimedia resources in preparation for instruction. The Smithsonian Museum has provided artwork for several units, and colleagues and teaching scholars across the country also met over the summer at Howard University to discuss how best to approach the curriculum. 

In the wake of seeing media about the new AP course, current college students who did not have the opportunity to take AP African American Studies when they were in high school are speaking out about the changes that they wish the new course, along with other recent efforts to introduce greater ethnic curricula in schools, will bring about. 

KaLa Keaton ’25, a prospective ethnicity, race and migration and African studies major at the University, hopes that the instruction will be “critical enough that students feel comfortable asking questions and challenging [the] society around them … and in turn, find themselves in the process.” 

She also noted that because not every Black student in every African American Studies class will have a Black teacher whose experiences resonate with theirs, instructors of the new AP course and other ethnic studies courses — especially those who are not Black — must consider their “positionality” and work to foster “atmospheres of vulnerability” in their classrooms.  This is a vulnerability she said that she was fortunate enough to find in some of her college courses. 

Similarly, for Jailon Henry ’23, taking interdisciplinary ethnic studies courses in college has helped him “articulate [his] own experience to others and understand it in a way that helps me find peace in the confusion that identity brings.” His time at Yale as an African studies major has seen him “search for” life possibilities beyond “accepting” the fixed position given to him by society. 

Sophie Bhurtel ’25, who attended an international high school in Ethiopia that used the International Baccalaureate college coursework program instead of the AP program, echoed Holahan and Keaton’s sentiment that rigorous race-based instruction can stimulate cultural awareness and more complex understanding of “diversity,” “privilege” and “acceptance,” she said. Bhurtel awaits the day when the International Baccalaureate program will follow suit and too offer a similar, college-level course in African American studies. 

Still, more progress remains to be made, Hill said, despite acknowledging the curriculum as an exciting opportunity to grow from. 

“There are a lot of people who feel as if different AP courses are …  inaccessible. When it comes to the humanities, a lot of it has to do with what people may think are cultural barriers,” Hill said. “We want there to be a potential for several hundreds, maybe thousands of high schools — or high school students rather — to be able to participate in perhaps their first and maybe only AP course [in African American studies].”

Over 80 percent of all high schools in the United States offer at least one AP course on-site, though the number varies by school.

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!