African American studies stays strong at BHS amidst bans in U.S.

In 18 U.S. states, including Arkansas, Texas, and Florida, various bills and legislations have been passed to restrict or ban certain high school courses, such as AP African American Studies.


In 18 U.S. states, including Arkansas, Texas, and Florida, various bills and legislations have been passed to restrict or ban certain high school courses, such as AP African American Studies. Additionally, in 44 states, legislatures or parent groups have sought to have bills passed that restrict the ability to teach courses that discuss racism, critical race theory, sexism, and more, according to an article by Education Week. Critical race theory is the idea that systemic racism is built into our country. 

For example, in July of 2022, a parent group in Tennessee sued local and state education leaders because of a curriculum that they claimed violated state law on schools’ ability to teach about race and gender.

“Banned courses limit the discourse about what we can talk about and learn about in our society,” said Spencer Pritchard, teacher and Co-Chair of the African American Studies Department at Berkeley High School. “(Banning courses) prevents us from having discussions across differences, and forces us to subscribe to a single narrative perspective,” said Pritchard. 

The College Board piloted AP African American Studies in 2022 to 60 high schools nationwide. By 2023, the class expanded to nearly 600 U.S. high schools. Soon, in the fall 2024 school year, the course will be officially launched and made available to all U.S. schools, according to the College Board. The course covers “the origins of the African diaspora, freedom, enslavement, and resistance, the practice of freedom, movements and debates.”

While BHS does not currently have an AP African American Studies class available to students, it has had an African American Studies Department for over 50 years. It was founded in 1968 and features classes like African Diaspora Dance (formerly known as Afro-Haitian dance), Spanish in the African Diaspora, and more. 

The BHS website states, “The African American Studies Department, the only one of its kind in the United States, is a unique learning environment within Berkeley High School. It focuses on the African American experience relative to the national and global perspective. The humanities-based courses take students on a journey through Africa’s glorious past, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the African American dynamics as an integral part of the development of our nation through history, literature, language, dance, drama, and spoken word.”

Dawn “Doc Dub” Williams, a teacher of Spanish in the African Diaspora and African Diaspora dance, said, “It’s really amazing that Berkeley allows for (African American Studies) to happen because this is a really special place. To have a Black Studies Department is very special. You don’t see a Black Studies Department in most schools.” 

Williams continued by saying, “I think part of the issue of not seeing yourself represented in high academic spaces like advanced placement (is that) it has an impact on how you see yourself.” Williams wrote up a proposal for her class “Spanish in the African Diaspora” in 2019; she said, “I recognized that we have Black students who were not seeing themselves in the language classes.” 

Similarly, Rebecca Villagran, a history teacher and the co-lead of Berkeley International High School (BIHS), saw that there was a Chicano literature class but no history adjacent and brought back a previously taught Latinx history class. The Latinx history class has been taught at BHS for over six years. 

“I hope that (African American Studies) raises self-esteem and gives students knowledge of African American culture … this opportunity to look at a literature that’s different from what’s generally taught is an empowering and enriching experience,” said Alan Miller, a teacher of African American Studies and BIHS history. “We’re referencing the works in relationship to themselves, and we’re looking at a thing called African American literature. We’re not just talking about literature in the broadest sense, and we get to explore the things that make (African American) literature and culture different and special.”