Are We Preparing to Reshackle Black Education?

As we grapple with the unsettling tides of today’s educational politics, it’s vital to remind ourselves that this is not our first rodeo. The present standoff in Arkansas over the AP African American Studies curriculum isn’t an isolated event; it’s a link in a chain of struggles that Black Americans have faced for generations in our pursuit of equitable education. As the curriculum dispute intensifies, Arkansas is now requiring schools to promise they will not include critical race theory in their lesson plans. This conflict between the state government and Arkansas schools was initiated on August 13, a mere two days prior to the commencement of the academic year, when the Arkansas Department of Education notified schools that it would not grant AP credit for African American studies courses.

The decision by the Arkansas Department of Education to deny recognition to AP African American Studies, while still acknowledging courses like AP European History, unearths deep-rooted biases and systemic inequalities that remain resistant to change.

READ: Arkansas Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Admnistration Challenges AP Black History Course

Let’s not forget that the fight for Black representation in educational curricula isn’t a novelty of the 21st century. It has roots that reach deep into the core of America’s civil rights battles. Think back to the late 1960s, an era of radical change and confrontation, when Black students staged protests and strikes to demand the inclusion of Black and Ethnic Studies in academic programs. San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley became the epicenters of these hard-fought battles, resulting in the establishment of African American Studies departments across the nation. Students then, much like those in Arkansas now, weren’t just asking for elective courses—they were demanding a revision of the very epistemology that underpins the American educational system. They fought for the right to learn, teach, and acknowledge a history and culture systematically overshadowed and disregarded by mainstream curricula.

The resistance to this history and the attempts to muzzle critical perspectives are not isolated phenomena. No, they are symptomatic of an enduring undercurrent in American society that seeks to maintain the status quo by curating knowledge and thus controlling the narrative. Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva’s recent warning letter was telling; his assertion that African American Studies courses may violate Arkansas law by teaching so-called “critical race theory” reveals a thinly veiled discomfort with an educational approach that calls out systemic injustice. It is a discomfort with the truth.

Photo Credit: X (Twitter)

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders is following in this alarming tradition by painting these African American Studies courses as perpetuating a “lie” and pushing a “propaganda leftist agenda.” She has strategically framed the narrative to turn the quest for educational equality into an ideological battleground. And let us be clear: this is not about a small handful of states going rogue. This is a part of a national playbook. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration, among others, has made similar moves earlier this year. The issue has been made glaringly obvious; the problem isn’t about a specific state, it’s about the country as a whole.

So, what is at stake here? Essentially, the very essence of a democratic education. An education that isn’t simply about churning out workers but forming critically-thinking, socially-aware citizens. An education that does not perpetuate the erasure and marginalization that has been foundational to the African American experience in this country but seeks to correct it by ensuring that Black history and culture are taught and understood.

Mary McLeod Bethune stands as an indomitable pillar in the history of Black education in America. Born to parents who were formerly enslaved, Bethune founded what we know today as Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, with an initial investment of just $1.50. Her mission wasn’t merely academic; it was a powerful act of defiance and self-determination. Bethune understood the transformative power of education as a means of cultivating leadership and promoting civic engagement within the Black community. In a country where, at one point, Black people were legally prohibited from learning to read—a tactic designed to sustain an exploitative socio-economic structure—Bethune’s work was revolutionary. She was not just teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic; she was equipping a new generation of Black Americans with the intellectual tools to challenge systemic inequity. Her legacy echoes powerfully in today’s struggles over educational curricula and serves as a reminder of what’s at stake. When Black Americans were finally able to peel off the legal shackles that barred them from education, it wasn’t merely a change in statute; it was a seismic shift in the socio-political landscape, a redistribution of power, a promise of what could be. It’s against this historical backdrop that today’s battles for equitable education must be understood. The struggle to include African American Studies in schools isn’t merely about adding another course; it’s a continuation of a long fight for educational justice and empowerment.

If this struggle against the willful erasure of African American Studies is lost, we must ask ourselves: What then becomes of the Black child sitting in that classroom? What happens to their understanding of themselves, their history, and their place in the world? And what message are we sending to non-Black students? The erasure of African American history from our educational institutions is not only an injustice against Black Americans but a disservice to all Americans. It cultivates ignorance where there should be understanding, and division where there should be unity.

This fight is not just about curriculum. This is about human dignity, about democratic ideals, about the very soul of a nation that still struggles to define itself. We must recognize that this is not a moment for complacency but for action, not just for the sake of Black Americans but for the integrity and future of America itself. The denial of African American Studies as a legitimate field of academic inquiry is not just a reversal for Black America; it’s a reversal for all of America. And it’s time we collectively take a stand against it.

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