Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham on the AP Af-Am Studies ControversyHistorians in the News
tags: Florida, African American history, Ron DeSantis
“Those narratives that they were singling out aren’t in the curriculum itself. What they see is buzzwords,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of history and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, tells TIME in an exclusive interview.
TIME: What’s your reaction to the Florida Department of Education’s criticisms about the AP African American Studies pilot?
HIGGINBOTHAM: Those narratives that they were singling out aren’t in the curriculum itself. What they see is buzzwords. They are picking on buzzwords that they know will inflame the hearts of some of their constituency. Communism was a buzzword in the 1950s against interracial marriage. If you were interracially married in the South, you became a communist. If people have political reasons for not wanting to see this [course], then no matter what arguments you give them, it won’t matter. So at this point, what I’m just interested in is stating what this course is and what we will do. And it’s exciting.
Governor DeSantis claims AP African American Studies is pushing “queer theory.”
We’re not pushing theory. Those things come up. Theory is replete in academia. Critical race theory built off of critical legal theory. Critical legal theory isn’t Black. Theory is everywhere. You’ve got Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, Einstein’s theory of relativity, bad theorists who are absolutely racist like Morton and Agassiz [who tried to use science to claim Blacks were inferior]. You’ve got religious theories. Theory is a part of higher education. But that’s not what this course is about.
The governor also says AP African American Studies would “indoctrinate” students.
One of our goals is to have students look at topics from a variety of angles. This is the farthest thing from indoctrination. How you look at a subject from different angles is best done through interdisciplinary work. And this is an interdisciplinary course.
The big difference is that when you indoctrinate, you are not seeking a questioning mind. You’re just trying to put an idea into pretty much a blank mind and think that that will be accepted unquestioningly. This is exactly the opposite of what the AP course is doing. The AP course is trying to give a sense of the different ways to talk about a particular topic. And so there’s room for debates on a variety of things.
One of the major points that comes out of this course is that Black people are not a monolith. The people of African descent are themselves of different ethnicities, of different ideologies and political persuasions. They are different as far as income, as far as education. And we’re trying to capture that complexity. There’s certain things that will be similar. But the richness of it is the complexity within a narrative that allows for students to disagree. And we want students to disagree. We want respectful and civil debate.
What are myths or misconceptions about the AP African American Studies pilot that you have found yourself debunking or having to set the record straight on?
Governor DeSantis said [Florida has] Black history, but [AP African American Studies] is a different type of Black history. No. This is a Black history that is based on facts and not theories. It is a Black history that uses primary sources, meaning those records of the times—the newspapers of the time, letters, correspondences, archival records of the times. It means looking at our laws, our Constitution, our judicial decisions. It means reading the Congressional Record. So this isn’t something that is made up.
For many people, the idea of kingdoms in Africa will be shocking because when I was growing up, watching television as a child in the 1950s and early 1960s, there was the portrayal of African people as though they were merely savages. And those kinds of images were everywhere, even children’s games. People of African descent should be understood in a new light.
The biggest misperception is that this is somehow neophyte. African American Studies is over 50 years in the academy. And when it first started in the academy, it started in the white schools. Over 200 primarily white schools had Black studies in one form or another—programs, centers, departments—in 1969. This is not some ghettoized knowledge that will not land you a job.