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High-schoolers share experience in AP African American Studies with State Board of Education

EKHS one of 12 Michigan schools piloting the course

Kentwood —  The topic — presented on a slide in front of the  East Kentwood High School Advanced Placement African American Studies class — was “1952: Detroit, Freedom & the Nation of Islam.” 

Students discussed how the Nation of Islam’s teaching influenced activist Malcolm X’s rhetoric, as described in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” 

Senior Shamar White observed how religious leader Elijah Muhammad  — who influenced Malcolm X — spoke of Black people being kidnapped from their homeland and stripped of their language, culture, faith and family structure. 

“He basically is saying, ‘We’ve lost who we are,’” Shamar said. “With how hard it is now to even know about our history, to even be educated about what had been going on back then is way different.”

Shamar’s acknowledgment that learning African American history is difficult points to the reason for the new course: to give students the opportunity to explore African American history and culture through rich and varied sources, according to information from the College Board, which operates the Advanced Placement Program.

The discussion was helping students prepare for the AP exam, the end-of-year test administered so students can secure college credit. East Kentwood is one of 12 high schools in the state and the only one in West Michigan piloting the course. At EK, National History Teacher of the Year Matt Vriesman is the teacher. All but one student in the current class is Black.

‘I’ve gone home and talked about this stuff. I haven’t done that since elementary school.”

— senior Shamar White

Vriesman has made headlines for his work in ensuring Black people are represented honestly and comprehensively in history. He created the website Antiracist APush, which includes nine AP U.S. History units spanning 1491 to the present. Each has related lessons and topics and is based on the work of historians. 

‘Make it a Main Core Course’

Since it was first introduced, AP African American Studies has caught national attention. It came under fire by conservative critics who said it teaches “critical race theory” and was rejected in Florida. The College Board in February 2023 removed several topics from the course, including Black Lives Matter, slavery reparations and queer life, but later restored some of them.

The course covers migration and the African diaspora: identity including race, ethnicity, class, nationality, gender, region, religion and ability, contribution to the arts, political movements and resistance. 

In April, several East Kentwood students presented to the State Board of Education about their experience taking the course. They described wanting to learn from primary sources and about little-known Black people who made history. They shared that it was helping them better understand their local community, country and the world.

After the recent EK class, students again shared their thoughts.

“I honestly think everyone should have access to this class — make it one of the main core courses, along with the other history classes,” said senior Kamaria Stewart, explaining that it provided a broader view of Black people’s experiences, contributions and history in general. It’s helped her learn history from ancient African cultures all the way to current events.

“The reason I wanted to take it is because I wanted to know more about the origins of Black people, since the American school system doesn’t really talk about how Black people got into this country other than that they got on a boat and came to America. I wanted to learn more in depth about everything.”

Shamar said the course “just appeared” on his schedule for the year, and he decided to give it a chance because it seemed different from other history classes. Vriesman pulled him in with his engaging teaching and information that was new to Shamar. 

“(Vriesman) was going so much further than what I learned in previous U.S. or World History classes. … I’ve gone home and talked about this stuff. I haven’t done that since elementary school,” he said. “I be going home like, ‘let me enlighten you.”

He said everyone should have the chance to take the class

“Some events we learn about are so misleading. From elementary and going all the way up the only figures I’ve known about are Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and a little bit about Malcolm X.

“This would be good for people to know. The way we make U.S. History and World History a requirement, I feel like this should be a requirement, or at least be added to a World History class, because there so much that’s skipped over.”

‘I honestly think everyone should have access to this class — make it one of the main core courses, along with the other history classes.’

— senior Kamaria Stewart

Vriesman said hearing insight from his students has given him “chills.” For a project on the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement, students chose to focus on how artists, athletes, poets musicians and others contributed.

“Having them (standing) up and talking about the Harlem Renaissance — taking in not only art and literature but also political significance, with a long view of Black history, making connections all the way back to West African history — it was one of those powerful moments that happened. It was so beautiful.”

Read more from Kentwood: 
The journey’s not over’: High-schoolers showcase Black history
Why teaching truth in history matters

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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