Challenges to history met with baton of knowledge

Louisiana’s AP African American Studies teacher champions courses, community lectures to expand knowledge

Malcolm Reed is running the modern leg of an ancient relay race. He teaches AP African American Studies and carries the collective history and culture of all African descendants, then passes a baton full of facts and details. He believes knowledge is power.

Students thirsting for that knowledge can be found anywhere. On Saturday, February 18, he found them in a small, but packed, Baptist church outside his hometown of Baton Rouge. Minds from 8 years old to the 80s came to celebrate Black History Month and get a hold of the baton that’s stirring controversy across the country as educators and elected official struggle to find “appropriate” content in the pilot high school course.

African contributions to human civilization on the planet is no afterthought and Reed reminded the audience why the continent is called the Cradle of Civilization. “As far as the fossils show us, the oldest modern human fossil was found in Ethiopian in 1960 and is estimated to be 200,000 years old,” he said. “We weren’t there, so, we don’t have all the facts, but we do know that the earliest human fossils ever found was in Africa. So, it starts with us anyway.”

Though running with an evangelical zeal, Reed’s message was not a pep rally for Black pride. He laid a ground work for historical milestones, scientific breakthroughs, and cultural contributions that would leave modern history full of gapping holes if this part was lost.

By passing the baton, Reed hopes to enhance history and add missing facts during his advance placement class and community lectures. “I just think the more we learn, the more our perspectives can grow and we can appreciate the legacy of how Africa (and its people) influenced the world in a positive way,” Reed said. “It’s not just a barren land with kids starving on commercials. It’s the cradle of all human civilization.”

Reed, a student-athletic turned teacher, was the baby boy his mother thought would follow her into the ministry. His calling is very real, but different. “I just told her that the classroom would be my pulpit and the (track and football) field would be my pulpit,” he said. “This is the best way I can reach the youth and impact lives. I do feel like that is my call and feel like that is my purpose.”

That purpose entered the national spotlight a month ago when Florida’s Department of Education, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis acted against the AP course in the state, claiming that it lacked educational value. Reed teaches at one of 60 schools across the nation–only three statewide– that is piloting the College Board’s newest advanced placement course, which is designed to offer college-level instruction to high school students. 

The College Board is a national organization bridging the gap between high school and college. Founded in 1900, College Board seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success—including the SAT, the Advanced Placement Program, and BigFuture. 

The College Board has announced changes to the AP African American Studies course, but also maintains it did not bow to pressure from the Florida officials. However, DeSantis has taken credit for the changes to the course. The new curriculum removes lessons on or written by Black writers and scholars, to Critical Race Theory, the Black LGBT experience, and Black feminism. It adds Black conservatism as a possible research topic for students.

The Rev. Dale Flowers, pastor of Redwood Baptist Church, said a collaborative effort of area pastors decided to host Black history programming before the move by DeSantis. Reed and Flowers are both graduates McKinley High School in Baton Rouge and Reed was asked to speak at the Black history program in Zachary. The church also hosted weekly classes throughout February.

The Rev. Dale Flowers speaks to Black history class participants about the remaining plans for the series that runs to the end of February.

Knowing that one program, or even one class, can’t hold the depth of Black history, Reed continues to inspire and plant seeds.

During this lecture, he described the University of Timbuktu, a collective term for the teaching associated with three ancient mosques in the city of Timbuktu in what is now the African country of Mali. 

The school contributed to the modern understanding of Islamic and academic studies in West Africa during the medieval period and produced a number of scholars and manuscripts taught under the Maliki school of thought.  “In Timbuktu’s golden age, they had hundreds of universities,” he said. “So, knowledge was power; knowledge was important to Black people, and it was more important than gold. It was gold!”

Reed told the story of a wealthy African man who visited and gave much of his wealth away in an effort to share the knowledge held by Timbuktu. “That is Africa and that is our legacy,” he said. “That is who we are representing every day. Yes, slavery happening in America. That is our story, but there’s a much larger story that took place before that time.” 

Reed’s AP African American Studies class in Ascension parish is diverse with Black, White, and Hispanic students, but he regrets that there is only one Black male student. He wants to reach the demographic much like himself, but he also acknowledged there is value to each student who picks up the baton. “Any students interested in the class should take it and see how it might prepare them for college, as is the goal for any AP course,” he said. “But also learn more about the history of this country as well as the world and gain a deeper understanding of how the role the African American experience has helped to shape society and culture as we know it today.”

By Frances Y. Spencer, Contributing writer

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