Acalanes student proposes African American studies course 

Course in initial process of being added to schedule

Modern-day instances of redlining, voter suppression, police brutality, and the school-to-prison pipeline carry the legacy of a fundamentally racist and unjust American society. With the rise in conversation about racial equity and the African American experience, many advocates point out that the first step in combating systemic racism is to study historical racial injustices. Plus, racism often hides the integral contributions and rich culture of the African-American community, which students do not learn enough about.

Acalanes sophomore Amani Williams, along with staff members Natalie Moore and Brian Smith, have proposed an African-American Studies course for sophomores, juniors, and seniors with the goals of informing students on the history and contributions of African-Americans as well as ultimately cutting down on racially charged incidents in school.

Williams kickstarted the discussion surrounding the importance of learning about African American contributions earlier this year with the publication of her letter, Acalanes Must Teach Black History. The letter voiced the necessity of taking action towards teaching a more inclusive history.

In writing this, I don’t want sympathy but rather empathy and action… I will continue to push until African American history is as integrated into our society as racism is,” Williams said in her letter.

To push forth this dialogue, Williams inspired and helped propose an African-American Studies course for Acalanes to teach. The course’s proponents plan to make the class a history requirement for sophomores and offer it as an elective for juniors and seniors. The curriculum could fit as a possible semester-long or full-year class.

“We would like to see something like this be a graduation requirement moving beyond [an] elective,” proponent and U.S. History teacher Brian Smith said.

Currently, the class is still in its proposal phase, which the Acalanes Administrative Council planned to review by year’s end.

Despite it being early in the course review process, proponents are hopeful for the passing of African American Studies as its contents coincide with the Acalanes Union High School District’s recent decisions to implement strategies promoting racial equity.

The African American Studies curriculum would range from focusing on the African continent preceding colonialism to the impact of racism both individually and institutionally on African and Africa -American people. Furthermore, it would delve into the rich African American culture and the Black experience today.

While the African American Studies curriculum might overlap with events and topics covered in U.S. and World History classes, the new course would more thoroughly examine the crucial African American perspective on historic events which typical  history textbooks do not go over.

“So it definitely overlaps, but African-American Studies just goes more in-depth because everything is dealing with [an] African-American perspective,” Miami Norland Senior High School’s African-American Studies teacher Renee O’Connor said. My class “covers WWI and the Great Depression and we also cover civil rights, but it’s all from the [African American] perspective so you just get it as added information.”   

 O’Connor is one of many educators across the nation taking strides for equal representation with African American Studies. Her curriculum at Miami-Norland Senior High School, a primarily African-American high school in Miami Gardens, Florida, serves as an inspiration for Amani Williams’ proposal. Acalanes will look to her curriculum and experience in teaching this class as a guiding framework.

“I was totally blown away that we didn’t have this class [at my school at first]… How can I be a teacher at a Black school where the majority of the kids are African American and they don’t know their history?… I started out with like maybe one class and… last year I had seven periods of it… I’ve been teaching it for the past five years here,” O’Connor said.

A more local guidepost for the class’s curriculum is Berkeley High School, whose African American Studies Department allows students to comprehensively study Black history as well as Black culture since its establishment in 1968. Their various course offerings include African American History, Economics, Psychology, Literature, and Dance. 

“In our department, students have an opportunity to take a plethora of classes that come from an Afrocentric perspective and highlight the accomplishments and history of people of African descent. These courses provide a unique balance of truth to typical Eurocentric curriculum,” Berkeley High School African Diaspora Dance Teacher Dawn Williams said.

In contrast, Acalanes’ history classes cover African American cultures and contributions infrequently. US and World history courses touch upon subjects such as slavery, imperialism, and the abolition movement, but the African American achievements beyond them are rarely studied in-depth.

“I think that the tough circumstances or the tragedies of the African American experience are explored [in the US History class] and some of the people that rose up in those moments are celebrated as [contributors], but I think it’s always coupled with the travesty that went with it,” Acalanes’ Smith said.

Acalanes students and teachers alike voice their thoughts on the need for more racially inclusive curriculums.

“I think the course would definitely bring light to African American history [and] since it isn’t really taught properly in regular history classes, I think a course dedicated to it would be great,” sophomore Luca Mathias said.

Inequity in historical perspectives is especially apparent in topics such as imperialism and colonialism, in which many students learn solely from the Eurocentric point of view.

“When taking World History it was very one-sided… it was always [about] the colonizers, not the colonized. It was always the people in power. I would hope to learn about the whole truth, not part of it,” Amani Williams said.

The recent surge of the Black Lives Matter movement further raised awareness of the need for a better understanding of the richness, diversity, and contributions of the African-American community. 

“Black people have literally and metaphorically built this country yet receive very little credit for many of their achievements,” US and World History teacher Haley Walsh said. “If these people have an equal share in the country’s history then they should also have equal representation in our curriculum.”

As of now, the only course option for Acalanes students who wish to learn more about different racial backgrounds in America is the Introduction to Ethnic Studies class introduced in the 2020-2021 school year. This semester-long elective teaches about the experiences of various races, ethnicities, and cultural groups in the United States. 

However, while the course brings a degree of African American representation to Acalanes’ course offerings, Ethnic Studies students feel that the class cannot capture the full scope of the African American experience in the amount of time given.

In Ethnic Studies, “we are only allowed a short period of time to try and understand so much [history that] isn’t taught in everyday classrooms and while it is satisfying and fulfilling, it’s impossible to get a full grasp [of it] because it’s only a semester class,” sophomore Olivia Banks said.

Many educators also feel that a single semester or a single history unit cannot sum up the integral role of the African American community, not only in American history but in the American present as well.

“[The African American Studies class] is important because we are [just] as important as everyone else in this country. The story needs to be told more than just one paragraph in a history book or one day in your world history class because our story is really what built America,” O’Connor said.

However beneficial African-American Studies may be to the community, advocates worry that the class will not garner the amount of support it deserves at Acalanes.

“I would jump at the opportunity to take such a class… but I don’t see much popularity [of it] among the majority [of] white students. Their history or ancestry isn’t being kept out of their classroom, so it’s perfectly natural [for them] to not care as much for what isn’t said,” Banks said.

Despite these challenges, educators of this course emphasize that the inclusion of African-American history will encourage anti-racist values starting within a school environment.

“For a school to have an African American Studies Department means that the school is willing to interrogate white supremacy, power, and oppression,” Dawn Williams said. 

Moving beyond its benefits for Acalanes as a whole, learning about the detailed history of minoritized groups will empower students of color by supplying them with knowledge of their history, heroes, culture, and importance within the United States.

“If I can show [Africa American] kids the rich history of our people and all the things that we did to…create and build America, maybe they will feel more empowered… But if all [that African American students] know is slavery, then I feel like: do we really even matter in this country? It’s just like this thing that’s always in the back of their heads,” O’Connor said.

“A required African-American history course will inspire students to expand their vision outside of their bubble,” Amani Williams said “… Students can take away a better understanding of my history, which then resolves empathy, and I think that with empathy, ignorance and insensitivity on campus will reduce.”