For over a decade, there had been talk about the need for some kind of Advanced Placement course focused on the Black experience.
But after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 inspired global protest, the College Board decided to roll out an African American studies class, with a strong emphasis on United States history, politics and culture. The selection of African American studies instead of a more conventional history course was pivotal, putting the staid, mainstream College Board into close contact with a left-leaning group of scholars deeply engaged in contemporary politics.
The discipline, also called Black studies or Africana studies, toggles between the past and present, melding history, the arts and theory. In introductory classes, the achievements of ancient African civilizations might be taught as a source of pride, while the legacy of Jim Crow might be traced into the lives of Black Americans today, in the education, housing and criminal justice systems.
By the spring of 2021, the College Board had hired a young scholar to direct the course’s development and began collecting college syllabuses. It also met with students and professors, all in an effort to build consensus on what the class should be.
In the fall of 2022, it launched a pilot class to try out an early version of the curriculum. Darren Williams, a social studies teacher in Tulsa, Okla., was part of the group. His students, most of whom are Black, Hispanic or Asian American, were deeply moved by lessons on lynching, he said, and had rich discussions about the death of Tyre Nichols after a brutal beating by an almost all Black group of police officers in Memphis.
While the College Board wants all students to take the course, it also hopes to address one of its biggest issues: persuading more Black students to take A.P. exams, where they are historically underrepresented.
The Board, a nonprofit, describes its mission as connecting students to college success, and it has been extraordinarily influential. There are signs, however, that its influence could be waning.