Backlash: Inside Florida’s African American Studies Ban

To history professor Erin D. Chapman, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ restrictions on the AP curriculum is a dangerous precedent—for educators and a divided country.

February 1, 2023

Erin Chapman

Associate Professor of History Erin D. Chapman (William Atkins/GW Today)

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial ban on an Advanced Placement African American studies course in the state’s schools has sparked a firestorm of criticism—among lawmakers, educators and activists. Civil rights leaders mobilized against it at a rally in Tallahassee. Attorneys have threatened lawsuits. And voices from academics and historians to Vice President Kamala Harris (D) have accused DeSantis of scapegoating Black history and culture for political gains.

And to Erin D. Chapman, an associate professor of history in George Washington University’s Columbian College  of Arts and Sciences, the ban is personal.

As DeSantis singled out elements of the AP curriculum—including Black queer theory and intersectionality—Chapman, whose research focuses on race and sexuality within U.S. culture and politics, felt like the attacks were aimed at her. Not just as a scholar, she said, but as an African American woman.

“I’m fearful as well as outraged,” she said. “A very narrow set of people are using their limited knowledge of this field to drum up anger and resentment in a wide swath of the population. And it’s pointed at me and people like me.”

As Black History Month approached, Chapman spoke with GW Today about how the African American studies ban is distorting history—and stoking division.

Q: This latest ban follows other Florida restrictions on teaching lessons like critical race theory. Is this really about removing what Governor DeSantis calls “indoctrination” from the schools?

A: Of course not. This is a backlash against a critique of the United States in its history and its social structures and hierarchies. It’s about resisting the current challenge to the status quo. This curriculum acknowledges the country’s long investment in racism from systems like slavery and Jim Crow segregation to our present moment. But many people have an emotional response [to the curriculum], a defensiveness, a sense of being accused of something. And there are politicians—not limited to Florida; similar things are happening across the country—who are playing on that ignorance and fear. They are using this issue to draw stark differences among people—even as they accuse African American studies of being divisive.

Q: As an expert, how do you respond to efforts to diminish your area of study?

A: This a very well-established field. It goes back through at least three generations of scholars, back to the late ‘60s. Pundits toss around buzz words like “critical race theory” in debates about wokeness, but most don’t really know what they’re talking about. This field is a way of understanding the nuances of how racism was formed and how it continues to function through the law or culture of various institutions—how it is we’re still reproducing racial differences even though we aspire to be an integrated and equitable society.

As an African American woman, this academic work is very important to me. But I can also tell you that the anger and anxiety around these issues has made me even more cautious in public spaces. I can’t just have a casual chat with an Uber driver about what I do. I have had some scary experiences where I felt endangered.

Q: What is lost when this curriculum is restricted in schools?

A: I’ve spoken to Florida teachers who describe being handicapped in what they can talk about with their students. How do you talk about current issues? How do you talk about the U.S. past? How do you talk about students’ own struggles with identity or self-worth or power relations? How can you help them understand all that if you can’t talk about racism and racial differences? This also intersects with an infuriating refusal to talk about the complexity of sexuality, of gender identity, of reproduction. The same people who are afraid of the AP African American studies curriculum are just as frightened about these other issues.

I’m also worried that we will see more and more students come to campus unprepared for the kind of critical thinking that we expect of them. Their high school curricula are so very limited and structured that they are eliminating ways for students to think through a range of problems. That’s what we do at the college level!

Q: What does this controversy say about the importance of events like Black History Month?

A: It depends on how you’re using Black History Month. In a certain context, Black History Month can be just putting pictures up and celebrating talented individuals. That kind of thing may still be legal in Florida, but I don’t think it is all that helpful in terms of helping us navigate these issues.

If Black History Month is a moment in which we reflect on the depths and variety of African American history, then, absolutely, that’s a great thing. But we don’t have to wait until February. I’m constantly trying to engage in complexity beyond simple celebration—and not just for a month. I do Black history all year long.