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Banned AP African American Studies course offered through Audubon church

Organizers surprised by huge response.

Pastor Sarah Robinson
Pastor Sarah Robinson of Audubon Park Covenant Church on hosting the banned AP African American Studies course: "I'm happy to instigate when the community is around it and supporting it." Photo: Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

A few weeks ago, a graphic began popping up in Facebook groups, announcing that the Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course was being offered by the Right To Read Audubon Park Community Library through the Audubon Park Covenant Church.

This was the same course that sparked debates over race, censorship and whose history gets taught in Florida schools when the Florida Department of Education rejected it in a Jan. 12 letter, telling College Board that the course it had developed over a decade was unlawful, inaccurate and lacked “educational value.” Gov. Ron DeSantis, prior to announcing his run for the White House, said the course promoted a “political agenda” because it included units on reparations, Black Lives Matter, Black feminism, Black queer theory and intersectionality.

Undaunted, library members scoured the internet to collect the readings and resources from the original College Board course, now being road-tested in more than 60 high schools in the U.S. before it gets rolled out for the 2024-2025 academic year.

Open to all, in-person and online, the course goes deep on the histories and cultures of the medieval African empires before even getting to the Atlantic slave trade. From there it covers a vast range of topics from slave ship revolts and the Haitian Revolution to Reconstruction, racial terrorism, the many facets of the Civil Rights Movement and Black art and music. The syllabus is ambitious in its breadth and depth.

With a start date of September 12, organizers anticipated 30 to 50 people might be interested.

Hundreds signed up.

Organizers are now rethinking the course dynamics to accommodate the demand.

I sat down Wednesday with Pastor Sarah Robinson, leader of the Audubon Park Covenant Church, to talk about how the course came together and what it means to offer a “banned” African American Studies course in such a politically charged educational environment.

Our interview has been edited and condensed.

Pastor Sarah Robinson: I think it's very odd that it's such a big deal, but I guess that just goes to show you why it's so important that we're doing this.

VoxPopuli: Well, let’s talk about why it is a big deal that a church, your church, stepped in to offer the AP African American Studies course.

Pastor Sarah Robinson: I want to clarify that the church isn’t organizing this. We're simply playing host. That needs to be clear. I personally believe really strongly in what we're doing. I'm very much the chief instigator of all of this, but not really necessarily the person making it happen. It's really a community effort, so I'm happy to instigate when the community is around it and supporting it.

VoxPopuli: Fair enough.

Pastor Sarah Robinson: The back story is that Audubon the neighborhood is a really tight-knit community of people. We actually know each other and are connected and passionately involved in the world and what’s happening. And when books began being moved out of classrooms and out of schools and being banned from those settings, there was interest in providing a space where people — kids, adults — could have access to those books. That was the beginning of the Right to Read Audubon Park Community Library, and the church is housing it.

We started a private Facebook group and quickly grew to 150, 200 people from all over the United States. We decided to focus on not only books that were banned or challenged, but topics that were being banned and challenged.

VoxPopuli: Which topics?

Pastor Sarah Robinson: Books around human sexuality, race, consent, women's empowerment. There were a lot of fiction books with parts in them that people found threatening. We understood that this was probably not just going to stop. Folks developed a list of books on Amazon, and books started showing up from all over. We ended up with over 300 books donated from the extended community all over the United States. They just came pouring in. It was really beautiful. This became the Right To Read Audubon Park Community Library.

At the same time, there was a whole series of legislative policies in the state that kind of matched these book bans and challenges, so when the African American History class was banned, folks felt like this was an opportunity to give people access to information, which is what the library does. So, yes, the course is for students, but it's for a lot of us who recognize that our education was probably lacking in this area, so the opportunity is really exciting.

Pastor Sarah with banned books
Two carts of banned books make up the Right To Read Audubon Park Community Library in the social hall of the Audubon Park Covenant Church. Photo: Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

VoxPopuli: With hundreds of people signed up, is the plan to break the class into small groups so that discussion can take place?

Pastor Sarah Robinson: I honestly don’t know how it’s all going to work. We’re figuring this out on the fly, and the course is being reconfigured because of the numbers of people interested. I believe we're still going to have a once a month hybrid meeting in-person and online, and we’ve had some great folks willing to step up to be facilitators, so those folks will probably become leaders of conversations. The class hasn’t met in person yet, so it’s all kind of theoretical and experimental still. But that’s exciting too.

VoxPopuli: How will the college credit work? On the graphic it said “Students may take the course for college credit.”

Pastor Sarah Robinson: We don't actually have that ability. We found out more since then. Because the course is still being piloted by College Board, only institutions that are part of the official pilot can do the [advanced placement] test this year. We were hoping students would be able to go to their schools and say, I've learned this. Maybe with future classes.

VoxPopuli: There’s this movement in Florida education now toward revisionist history — like that enslaved people benefitted from slavery. What do you think is driving the push for these “alternative facts” in the classroom?

Pastor Sarah Robinson: There are always people who want to control others to get or retain power. One of the ways you do that is through controlling information. This is not a new playbook, and it’s a common playbook. The folks bringing down this legislation have decided it's a politically expedient thing to do at the moment. But it affects real people on the ground. It affects students. It's going to affect policy for a long time.

The fortunate thing is anybody can get on the internet and connect with real history. Of course, plenty of falsity on the internet as well, right? But information is available. The things being taught in this course aren’t coming from a random place. It's coming from a very well-respected educational institution, which has a long history of working hard to educate and train up the next generation.

VoxPopuli: I talked with one of the course coordinators last week, and there were concerns about press coverage of the course. The course is password-protected online. But there seemed to be concern about blowback on the people taking the course because of the legislation surrounding what can be taught these days.

Pastor Sarah Robinson: I don't see it so much as fear-based, as care-based. We want to take care particularly with the conversations that will happen in the course, which is really the special sauce of it. The beauty of it is the opportunity to talk together, and that can be very vulnerable because this is a lot of new information, and it will likely at some point bring up our own biases, our own blind spots.

During the pandemic, after George Floyd was murdered, we started a book discussion group about Ibram X. Kendi's book, How to Be Antiracist. It was difficult and vulnerable, and some of the conversation was hard. It was good, but it was hard. And it took building trust. And not everybody could stay in it. There were folks for whom it was like, Oh boy, I didn't really understand what I was signing up for and I'm not prepared to do this kind of work. Some people self-selected out.

Similarly, there are a couple of layers to the care we’re trying to offer in the course. We're hoping people will be willing to really push through. It's not only vulnerability from folks like me who have white privilege blind spots, but also the vulnerability it takes for Black folks, for African Americans, who have experienced this racism and for whom this history isn't an abstract thing, it's their very own story. To share that in that setting is also very vulnerable.

VoxPopuli: Talking about white privilege can sometimes make people feel attacked or being made to feel responsible for the country’s historic wrongs. That’s the crux of the Stop WOKE Act — not making white people feel guilt for America’s many atrocities against Native Americans and Blacks, interning the Japanese in camps during World War II, etc.

Pastor Sarah Robinson: We all could use more practice understanding people's real lived experience from their perspective. I feel very blessed to have been raised in an atmosphere where I was enriched by other people's stories, and it created a depth of empathy in me. When you lack that, when it becomes only about you, then you can misunderstand dramatically, and think somehow, all of this — which isn't about you at all — is about you.

So the invitation is We have a basic misunderstanding, and let's try again. Would you be willing to be open and vulnerable enough to just sit and hear some of these stories and try to gain some perspective? But people have to be ready for that. It’s an invitation into a richer understanding of our own history. And I'm always down for that. But those kinds of conversations are difficult. You hear some of that same pushback of why they don't want it to be taught. A lot of history is hard and difficult, right? It doesn't mean it's not important and that there isn't something to learn from it. But pretending that it's not real, which, by saying we're not going to teach it, is functionally a way of doing that, doesn't actually help at all.

VoxPopuli: Knowledge doesn’t stay buried. It has a way of seeping up through the cracks. Do you see parallels between what the church is facilitating through the library and other times in history when passing on knowledge was forbidden, like when it was illegal to teach Black people to read or when women were shut out of higher education?

Pastor Sarah Robinson: Absolutely, there are parallels. As I mentioned before, the playbook of controlling information for the sake of power and retaining power is an old playbook. Part of the reason these movements have been so threatening right now is that folks who have had a lot of power for a long time are recognizing that they're not going to be able to keep that for the long run. I really see this as the last dying gasps of the old way where that's not really going to be possible for a lot of reasons anymore. We're more global, we're more multicultural, there's more ubiquitous access to information. The world changes and evolves.

Martin Luther King Jr. talked about in history, history bends towards justice. I truly believe that. I believe that as a pastor and a Christian, that that's the story in Scripture. And so to me, this push for equality, justice, towards understanding, and having everyone have their voice and be at the table, I don't know how long it's going to take, but we are in a moment where it's happening, and I believe that that's holy and what God intends.


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