What Does AP African American History Have to Do with the Frontier?
In the wake of an AP African American studies course piloting in high schools nationwide, Florida governor Ron Desantis has denounced the course's “woke” agenda, barring it from being taught in Florida public schools. Desantis’s assertations of the course, such as his claim that teaching African American history is “indoctrination,” grossly disparage African Americans’ contribution to American culture and the historical precedent of critical race theory.
The course encompasses African American history from 600 CE to the present day, with the objective to “examine the diversity of African American experiences through direct encounters with authentic and varied sources.” The course presents an interdisciplinary study of the African-American experience, with some historical figures as optional areas of study.
The key events from the course facing scrutiny include the black panther movement, Black Lives Matter, reparations for slavery, and queer Black voices. Conservatives have accused these lessons of propagating an extreme leftist narrative. This debate, disguised under the premise of bipartisanship, is a mere effort to conserve Confederate ideals and “rectify” the deep South's long and hegemonic history with slavery.
As students are introduced to our nation's governing principles, aligning these concepts with African-American lenses is crucial. For centuries, minority groups have epitomized these ideas through their suffrage movements, reinforcing the foundational notion of government through discussion. The white male patriarchy did not pioneer democracy as our history books would have us believe; rather, it was African Americans and minority groups who gave agency to the “unalienable rights” outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
Teaching Black history is critical- if not synonymous- to teaching American history. “Radical” protests become demonstrations of patriotism. Ideas pushing “liberal propaganda” become the ideas reflected in the democratic system we fervently pride ourselves on today.
Through protest and insurgency, black Americans have undeniably enriched the soul of the American character in every aspect of culture.
Throughout American history, traces of African American presence can be identified within most canonical American texts, refuting Desantis’ assessment of the course as “lacking in educational value.” Not only have artistic, literary, and cultural movements led by Black Americans become staples of American identity, but the African American lens is also infused in literature written by the Eurocentric white male.
As the historian and great American author Toni Morrison notes, “Black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.” To examine texts such as Huck Finn, Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and more, high school students must have the analytical arsenal to deconstruct racially coded language and themes. A study of African American history does this precisely by allowing students to adopt a holistic lens, contextualizing the undertones of Africanism in national culture.
The notorious Frontier thesis has distinguished itself in every AP United States History curriculum. It is described as a declaration of the westward frontiers closing, resulting in the death of “rugged individualism.” In his thesis, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the West, in all its boundlessness, was essential in shaping democracy and a “composite nationality for the American people.” Notably, the frontier thesis mentions the contingent issue of slavery in western territories, concluding: “Nothing works for nationalism like intercourse within the nation.”
Though Historically relevant, the Frontier thesis reinforces constraints towards African Americans inflected throughout the language. Turner's thesis hinges on bigotry and appropriation, equating colonialism to exceptionalism.
The omission of African-American narratives in the West makes a historical statement in itself. By defining the “free land” as the Mecca of the white man, his exclusion of African Americans provides a means to compare the free to the shackled, the savage to the civilized, and the chosen to the cursed. Sovereignty does not exist without its counterpoint.
Courses illuminating African Americans' role in history can expose racialized language within historical texts, allowing students to develop critical thinking skills. In a multicultural society, it is of utmost importance to acknowledge these barriers embedded in our language to expand our conversations regarding democracy, equality, and identity. This starts in the classroom, and it begins with accountability.
Contrary to Turner's dismissiveness, African Americans likewise experienced the frontier, dating even before white settlers began their migration. The African American presence in the frontier helped advance Black suffrage movements and entrepreneurship, challenging the institution of slavery in new territories.
Democracy, individualism, masculinity, and cultural nationalism, defining characteristics of the frontier, can be paralleled to themes throughout the African American plight in America. By allowing the subversion of African-American narratives, we are doing a disservice to the future generation of leaders, innovators, and thinkers. Nuanced perspectives created nuanced conversations, and studying Black history through courses such as the AP adds valuable context to our democratic practices today and understanding of sovereignty.