A slave ship drawing hangs in an Alabama social studies class. Photo for The Washington Post by Julie Bennett

Even as lessons on Black history draw complaints from Republican governors, who argue the instruction is ideological, several blue states are moving in the opposite direction – mandating classes in African American, Latino, and Puerto Rican studies – and setting up a uniquely American division over how we teach our past.

Since 2019, partly in response to the murder of George Floyd, at least four reliably Democratic states – Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, and Rhode Island – have passed laws requiring instruction on Black history, according to a database maintained by the research agency Education Commission of the States. Connecticut’s law says African American, Puerto Rican, and Latino studies must be included in the social studies component of all public school curriculums. Delaware mandates that school districts offer instruction on Black history. Maine says that African American studies and the history of genocide must be included in state testing standards. And Rhode Island orders schools to include a unit on African History and Heritage.

In the past three years, an additional seven states have passed laws establishing K-12 courses in ethnic studies or on Native American, Asian American, or Filipino history, per the Education Commission’s database.

Meanwhile, Republican state governors and administrations spent weeks leading up to Black History Month this year interrogating how, or if, teachers should discuss race, racism, and American history in the classroom.

In Virginia, state education officials appointed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed shifting the focus of a state history curriculum away from Black and Native peoples in a revision process that is ongoing. In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a January executive order barring teachers from delivering certain messages about race. And in Florida – which has already passed restrictive laws similar to the Arkansas order – Gov. Ron DeSantis flayed a proposed AP African American studies course, after which the College Board altered that curriculum to exclude lessons on Black Lives Matter. Eighteen mostly red states have similarly passed laws circumscribing what teachers can say about race and the country’s history of race relations over the last three years, per a tally compiled by The Washington Post.

In other places, the adoption of courses focused on Black and Brown lives is exciting for some young students of color. Alana Lilley, a 16-year-old African American student in Connecticut, was quick to sign up for her state’s new history elective last year, astonished to see a course devoted to people who look like her. In class, she was startled to learn about the lives of Black royalty in Africa before slavery – and how that society’s regal traditions influenced European culture when she always believed it was the other way around.

“I had underestimated how strong we were because of what I was taught,” Lilley said. “So it made me look at us as more powerful than I ever thought we were.”

Textbooks sit on the shelf at a high school in Birmingham, Ala. Photo for The Washington Post by Julie Bennett

Tanji Reed Marshall, director of P-12 practice for the Education Trust, which works to remove racial and socioeconomic barriers from public-school learning, warned that the divergent paths in teaching Black history will lead to a generation of children more divided than the current population.

“It’s going to widen knowledge gaps, it’s going to disadvantage students from whom this information is being withheld,” Reed Marshall said. “Our children are going to come across people from other nations who know more about the history of this country than they do.”

DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin said in a statement that “it is both dishonest and incorrect for anyone to say Florida limits or prohibits the teaching of African American history” – but added that “Governor DeSantis will not allow ideologues to utilize black history as a vehicle for a political agenda in Florida’s classrooms.”

Griffin pointed out in an email that Florida teachers are already required by law to teach African American history, a requirement reinforced by one of the education bills the governor signed last year, called the “Stop WOKE Act.” In addition to prohibiting instruction that could make students feel “responsibility for … actions committed in the past by other members of the same race,” the act says teachers must discuss “the history of African Americans” and “the contributions of African Americans to American society.”

Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning wrote in a statement that “the Governor wants kids to learn everything to have the best chance at success in life, not be taught to hate one another on account of their race or to hate our great country.” And Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter wrote in a statement that “the Youngkin administration is focused on teaching all history and protecting all learners from discrimination.”

Some on the right say that fears of GOP censorship are overblown. Rick Hess, director of education policy at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said conservative politicians are targeting ideological doctrines – such as the notion that systemic racism is embedded in U.S. society – that are now being taught as facts, without allowing students room for question or debate.

Hess said that DeSantis’s criticism of the AP African American studies program is a case study in reasonable Republican objections. DeSantis’s administration flagged units about Black Lives Matter and reparations, the idea that Black Americans deserve repayment in some form for the injustice of slavery.

“There’s a pretty bright line between theoretical interpretations and contemporary movements versus what I would think of as a robust history in a course intended to span hundreds of years,” Hess said. He predicted that political tensions and heated rhetoric over how to teach Black history will only escalate ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Florida is one of about 12 states with laws on the books that mandate teaching African American history, according to LaGarrett King, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and founding director of the school’s Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education.

Throughout the decades, smatterings of states have passed such laws in response to major episodes of racial unrest, King said. One wave of legislation came in the 1960s as a response to the civil rights movement. Florida’s 1994 law marked a reaction to revelations about the 1923 destruction of a Black town known as Rosewood, the Tampa Bay Times has reported. And the early 2020s legislation elsewhere followed Floyd’s murder and the protests it ignited against systemic racism, King said.

But the teaching of Black history is now imperiled in nearly half of the dozen states that purportedly require it, King said. Five of these states have lately passed laws similar to Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act,” many of which block the teaching of “divisive concepts,” he said.

“So, okay, you can you say have a Black history mandate in your laws,” he said. “What’s Black history if we can’t explore aspects of anti-Blackness and racism and oppression and all those different concepts?”

Still, King sees some reason for optimism with the most recently debuted state requirements in Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Connecticut, some of which are more specific than previous iterations.

In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) 2019 signed a law requiring that all public schools offer a high-school elective in “African-American and black studies [and] Puerto Rican and Latino studies.” The state’s education department spent months finalizing a curriculum for the course, consulting with students, teachers, professors, legislators, and parents, among others.

The class today comprises 11 units of study over 170 days, said Irene Parisi, chief academic officer for the Connecticut Education Department. Importantly, it begins in Africa, but not with slavery, she said – highlighting the Black experience in that country before moving to “the construction of race and why and how it was developed.”

The course further examines how Black and Latino peoples sought to achieve true citizenship in America and promoted civil rights in their movements, as well as exploring the cultural, economic, and artistic legacies of Black, Latino, and Puerto Rican Americans. Some of the highlighted historical episodes include the tale of La Amistad, a ship that some enslaved Africans successfully commandeered in 1839 before winning their freedom before the U.S. Supreme Court – and the heroic exploits of the Tuskeegee Airmen, an all-Black fighter and bomber group that became one of the most decorated squadrons in the segregated military during World War II.

“Our students, they have not delved into this type of history at such a level,” Parisi said.

Lamont said in a statement that the course is necessary because “America has a complex and difficult past when it comes to issues involving race.” He added that “American history did not start with Plymouth Rock.”

Andhy Loja, a 15-year-old Hispanic student taking the Connecticut elective this year, said the class has yielded several revelations, such as when his teacher told him “race is a social construct.” Or when he learned about the practice of redlining in Hartford, near where he lives and attends the Academy of International Studies, a public magnet school.

“It was eye-opening,” he said.

The curriculum debuted at 60 high schools last school year as a trial run and has expanded this year to include roughly 175 of the state’s 200 high schools, said Stephen Armstrong, social studies consultant for the Connecticut Education Department. The program’s debut has cost more than $1 million in state funding so far, Parisi said, with some of the money going to training teachers on how to lead the course and some to providing these teachers with class materials.

Armstrong and Parisi said feedback from educators and students has been overwhelmingly positive in the first months of the statewide rollout. The department is still gathering data on how many students are enrolled this year, as well as enrollees’ racial demographics, but Parisi said anecdotes from teachers suggest interest from a diverse group of students.

Michaela Katzman, who is teaching the elective at the Academy of International Studies this year, said she – alongside her students – has learned to consider well-trodden historical paths in a new light. For example, when she discusses slavery, she focuses far more on the rebellions led by Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey than on the oppression of enslaved Africans.

“The idea that people were trying to help themselves,” she said, “that’s been exciting to students.”

Delaware, meanwhile, passed a law in 2021 asserting that Black history “is of such importance that the General Assembly … chooses to require school districts and charter schools to include [it] in their curricula.” The law took effect this school year.

Nineteen-year-old Tariah Hyland helped push for the legislation while she was still in high school. Hyland, who is Black and is now a sophomore at Howard University, assisted Democratic Delaware Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker D in drafting the law. Dorsey Walker said she was inspired to propose the legislation because “limiting Black history to one 28-day month was insufficient and a disservice to the countless Black Americans who have contributed to our nation.”

Hyland, for her part, first grew discontented with the teaching of Black history her freshman year at St. George’s Technical High School. That’s when she realized that very few people who look like she was featured in the curriculum. Discussions of Black history were limited to accounts of the civil rights movement, the Civil War, and slavery, she said.

“I definitely got the diluted version of Black history, and a lot of that was around Black History Month,” Hyland said. Although the Delaware bill passed too late to affect Hyland’s K-12 schooling, she is delighted with what other students in her home state will now experience. “It’s not just our pain and our trauma, it’s our beauty and our power,” she said, referring to Howard classes that taught her about writer James Baldwin and Black political figures.

Shelley Meadowcroft of the Delaware State Education Association said teachers in her group feel the law provides some insulation from vitriolic debates over how to teach race, racism, history, and gender that have engulfed other parts of the country.

“Our teachers have enjoyed the ability to dive deeper into the curriculum without having to have fear of suddenly being on the news for, ‘Oh, my God, why are they talking about racism in fourth grade?'” Meadowcroft said.

Melissa Tracy, a teacher at Delaware’s Odyssey Charter School, said she debuted an African American studies course at her school back in 2019, a few years ahead of the curve. Feeling supported by both her school and state, Tracy this year volunteered to serve as one of a handful of teachers nationwide piloting an early version of the AP African American studies class that DeSantis calls “woke.”

Sometimes, planning lessons late at night, Tracy said she catches herself wondering, “‘ If I lived in another state, would I be able to teach this primary source? Would I have to change it? Put a disclaimer on it?'” She noted, “I have colleagues in Virginia who already do that.”

In early February, a few days after DeSantis blasted the content of the course she is teaching, Tracy gave a lesson about prominent Black suffragists including Maria W. Stewart, Mary Church Terrell, and Nannie Helen Burroughs.

She asked her students to look through a U.S. History textbook borrowed from another teacher to see if they could find the women listed there. They couldn’t.

The students, she said, spent a long while talking about why those women were left out.

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