“American Gothic,” photo of Ella Watson, by ©Gordon Parks, 1942, Washington DC
Copyright: Gordon Parks Foundation

Reading Deeply

I’ve been chewing on news about the College Board’s Advanced Placement test in African American Studies that made headlines over the past weeks, trying to sort out my sympathies.

Let me disclose that I worked on a consulting team, revising national communication exams a few years ago, for one of the agencies that administers college tests.

The team consisted of university teachers and researchers across the United States who specialize in media studies.

The group was small: just seven of us.

And while this wasn’t about Advanced Placement exams, the experience left me with admiration for the agency’s desire to create meaningful ways to measure what students should be attending to in media classes.

My first encounter with AP tests was in high school.

I attended private schools that groomed youngsters living overseas to prepare us for American colleges, so nearly all higher-level classes were geared for Advanced Placement: US history, mathematics, biology, French, English, and so on.

If you pass a test (typically a grade of at least 3 on a 5-point scale in those days) then–in college–you may skip the entry-level course and take a more advanced-level class.

In high school I took AP history, French language, and English literature and then petitioned the state college where I later attended in California to “leap forward” into more sophisticated courses because I had passed all three.

And, while I was a good student, I wasn’t exceptional: all my junior and senior colleagues passed their exams: a testament to our instructors who created the classes.

Florida Shenanigans

When I read the governor of Florida wanted to remove the AP exam course for African American Studies from the high school curricula in her/his state, I wondered: Does a governor have power over the classes a student takes?

Can a governor influence the design of a nation-wide exam, like the Advanced Placement test?

Following the threads in The New York Times I learned that, while the governor got a lot of press coverage for fighting with the College Board, state-level educational decisions are made by the home Legislature and Department of Education.

A quick hunt for news stories led me to believe the governor was solely responsible for the AP decision, as the headlines (below) show:

[Note: To avoid feeding search engines with the governor’s name, I use an (almost) anagram“Stained” when referring to him/her. My rationale for not naming the individual is because I may stoke egos and repeat falsehoods unintentionally].

Here are recent headlines about the AP story:

“Stained” says s/he could do away with AP courses altogether (USA Today).

Essential Politics: “Stained” versus the College Board (LA Times).

“Stained” wants Florida to cut ties with College Board over African American AP test (Forbes).

Governor suggests maybe Florida doesn’t need AP classes (CBS-12 Florida affiliate).

“Stained” defends banning African American studies course (Politico).

In other words, news headlines imply the governor has sole authority over such decision-making.

Not so.

In addition to inflating his power to make curricular decisions, the governor apparently confuses teaching history with personal prejudices: odd for someone with a degree in history from Yale.

Down and Dirty

The New York Times dug deeply into the conflictassigning a team of reporters to separate fact from fiction.

Much of the discussion regarding the content of the AP test occurred behind closed doors and zoom calls between the College Board and Florida “officials,” according to the Times.

The 13 February 2023 article suggests the College Board buckled under Florida’s demands (which the Board denies).

Three reporters weigh in on the investigative story, tracing the history of the College Board’s conversations with folks in Florida.

The Times reporters offer details of cause-and-effect after the Board’s revision of the test followed its meeting with Florida officials.

The College Board created a list of issues that ideally should be included in a college course about African American Studies, including historical and current scholarship on racism, identity, institutions, gender and more.

Such issues were woven into a draft AP curriculum based on recommendations from college instructors who teach African American Studies.

The curriculum was then circulated to more educators for input.

But after talking with a Florida team in November last year, the College Board vice president for the AP program discovered the state’s officials lacked knowledge about African American studies altogether, leading him to describe their expertise as politics, not education.

For example, Florida officials asked whether the Black Panther Party was taught as a historical topic, and whether the test was “trying to advance Black Panther thinking,” according to Jason Manoharan, vice president for AP program development.

Manoharan said he explained the Black Panthers were a common part of introductory courses, and “that is not something that we can change or compromise.”

“What became clear very quickly is that these were not content experts,” said Manoharan, who earned a doctorate at Harvard.

Such a revelation suggests Florida decision-makers were poorly qualified to assess the exam.

“I have interacted with many DOEs [Departments of Education],” said Manoharan of his meetings.

The Florida “DOE acts as a political apparatus,” he said, adding, “It’s not an effort to improve education,” the Times reports.

Florida had not given useful feedback about what was wrong with the course, and Manoharan is baffled and frustrated about how to respond, the story said.

Dissecting the Timeline

The Times reporters compared the AP curriculum before and after Florida officials became involved, and found the College Board dropped several substantive areas from the test, despite Manoharan’s protestations that the Board hadn’t caved to the state’s agendas.

Initially, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and Michelle Alexander’s writings were included in the AP content.

After the meetings with officials from Florida, writings from both authors were dropped.

[Coates won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction for his book, Between the World and Me, while Alexander–a civil rights lawyer–wrote the prize-winning, The New Jim Crow.]

The Times says, “there is a notable political valence to many of the revisions.”

For example, early African American Studies’ AP drafts (which were based on college syllabi from across the country) included “Black queer studies, womanism (a form of Black feminism), mass incarceration, reparations and Black Lives Matter.”

The draft included issues central to African American history, such as structural racism, racial formation and racial capitalism, according to the news report.

“Over the following 11 months, most of those concepts gradually dropped out of the course’s required topics,” reports the Times.

What Did We Learn?

Clearly the New York Times reporters offer a judgment that Florida decision-makers were ill-suited to make curricular suggestions due to lack of expertise and integrity.

And yet changes that suited their agendas were made in subsequent drafts.

After learning that central ideas and key authors were removed from the test, “many African American studies scholars” were “infuriated…for what they view as a stealth betrayal,” the Times reports.

Gone, too, are “groundbreaking Black female writers and leftist activists such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Alice Walker, who were included in the 2022 draft,” according to Times writer Dana Goldstein.

Goldstein notes the Black Lives Matter social movement was removed, as was the discussion about how social structures–such as banks, churches, schools, the military, hospitals, entertainment and news media, governments and police–impact all peoples, especially the poor and the disenfranchised.

Legal scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, who posits that individual and social levels of class and gender and ethnicity intersect, was also excised, likely because Crenshaw’s ideas about such intersections (called intersectionality) threaten quotidian thinking.

Now What?

Seems to me the motivation of the “officials”—including the governor—is to ensure their fibs and fantasies driven by tainted and oblique agendas are set in motion in Florida classrooms.

As an educator I have been fortunate that I have had the freedom to develop my college courses without interference regarding the content of what I teach.

I can choose textbooks written ethically by skilled scholars, and I can avoid treatises that are driven by racist and xenophobic agendas.

And I am privileged to teach propaganda and critical thinking to help students witness everyday myth-making.

Educators, parents and thoughtful citizens living in Florida are witnessing first-hand a movement to write a history riven with lies.

We can honor our fellow humans.

We can report accurately on history.

Speak up.

Speak out.

Don’t give up.

Posted 19 February 2023

I honor the Native Peoples on whose ancestral homelands we gather here in the Pacific Northwest.


In recognition of Black History Month (February) I am posting a brief (6 minute) video about the Greensboro Four: college students who protested peacefully at their local Woolworth store in North Carolina which refused to serve Black customers at its lunch counter. The quartet—Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond—sat at the counter on 1 February 1960 and refused to move until the store closed. They returned the next day. The sit-ins were covered by the news media, word spread, and others began protesting across the American South. The video was posted on the following webpage:

Credit: Christopher Wilson of the National Museum of American History, 31 January 2020, “The Moment When Four Students Sat Down to Take a A Stand,” Smithsonian Magazine (online).






























About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in 1491, nativescience and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to LITTLE THEORIES

  1. Conrad Ramirez says:

    Well written Ma’am


  2. Oh, Cynthia, What a timely, beautifully written piece (which I am sharing with my others)! The College Board is shameful. I suspect their decision will come back to haunt them.

    Today’s Florida university madness just highlights their desire to erase all they find objectionable. (They seem to forget that the repressed returns with a vengeance.) Sadly, He Who Shall Not Be Named apparently has a high national approval rating, even with minorities, which does not bode well for us. Of course, we have all been here before but sure is painful to be here still/again.

    Those imperial dreams of a thirty year rule seem unrealistic given the rapidity with which people and cultures now change. Still, I fear the country is going to wake up with a truly terrible hangover, and that after a lot of people and ecosystems get badly hurt.

    Thank you and take good care.


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