Mabel Hamilton provides opening remarks about the importance of the classes.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Mabel Hamilton remembers when stories of African American history weren't just passed down from family to family, but were reinforced in schools.
The city school system had offered African American studies, delving into the history and contributions of the black community as part of the American story. But a few decades ago, the school district cut the class and that history faded from the curriculum.
"Life is a cycle and if we do not know where we come from, we will not know where we are going," Hamilton said.
Hamilton was addressing a crowd at Price Memorial AME Zion Church who had gathered to talk with Superintendent Jason McCandless and school officials about the classes. In January, McCandless committed to bringing back those classes and they will return this fall to the high school classrooms.
"I think kids are thirsty for this. I think black children are thirsty for this, white children are thirsty for this. All children are thirsty to learn that there is more to history than white men who are 50, 60, 70 and 80," McCandless said.
The reinstatement of the classes comes at a time when race relations in the country are strained, with white supremacy, bigotry and hatred taking the center stage in many discussions. Hamilton said the national tenor is putting the black community back on track toward the oppression and violence they had endured in the past.
"We have a president speaking of taking America back to what it was to make it great again. Where are we going if we don't know where we've come from? We surely cannot know where we can end up going unless we can look back and know the very ways the system has oppressed us," she said.
McCandless echoed the sentiment, saying the school system has to play an important role in preempting hatred.
"From the very highest hallways of power in this country words are being used to divide. Words are being used to empower actions and hate is being preached from the pulpit of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on a daily basis, which is utterly unacceptable," McCandless said. "I am convinced across America in groups like this who are going to fight those who want to continue to tie this knot that binds all of us in some ways but some of us in ways that is devastating, life-changing, and life defeating."
The reinstatement of the courses was particularly pushed by Berkshire Interfaith Organizing. Wes Gadson said the organization, a collaborative of faith-based groups, had identified early that racial justice was going to be a priority for the organization. Throughout 2018, the members then held numerous forums and met with various organizations and officials about the issues.
"Early in our research process, we learned a lot about how the public education system works and the importance of its role in the community working toward racial justice and equity," Gadson said. "We recognized how the absence of African American studies as a constant part of the curriculum could impact community and family life."
Jamal Ahmad crafted and will be teaching the program for Taconic High School. He discussed the reading list and said the focus is to both recognize the oppression that has happened but also focus on black culture and contributions African Americans made to history.
"A lot of this book is about how students of color need to see themselves as not people of color, but also students, creating an academic identity, going to school, finding work and things of that nature but also looking at what has been taught as black history for years and pointing out how that is part of the system of oppression," Ahmad said. "When we only look at the slavery, when we only look at the civil rights movement, when we only see of people of color being attacked on TV or on Facebook or with police brutality, it normalizes the beating and breaking of black bodies."
The class will talk about the violent history but also things like fashion and food. Another book is being used that provides a positive influence on young students.
"Are there black movies for kids of color where it is not about gang violence, it is not about drugs, where it is not about that? It is hard to come across," he said.
The class will also provide life lessons about issues black students will be facing when they get older.
"There are some issues women of color don't experience until they get older, once they've started dating and get serious about relationships. It is important that we address that stuff now. The same thing for guys," Ahmad said.
McCandless said the class at PHS is going to be more "of a traditional history course." It will be focused on primary source documents from the likes of the Rev. Samuel Harrison, a local religious leader and chaplain to the 54th Massachusetts during the Civil War.
The superintendent, however, said just launching the programs aren't enough. He said the district has been taking a focus on bringing black history into all subjects and all classes throughout the district — from kindergarten through 12.
He added that the staff had taken classes to hone their craft on implicit bias and recognized the role schools have played as part of a system that was stacked against the black community.
The event drew a large crowd to the Linden Street church.
"We have benefited from a corrupt system, a systematically corrupt system, and we have implicit biases," McCandless said. "We have to rewire our brains and our hearts so that we are overcoming our implicit biases that shows up in 1,000 different ways."
Staff is now making an extra effort to ensure accomplishments by African Americans are taught just as much because they are a part of American history that had previously been ignored. He said there is also an effort to further diversify the reading lists and to teach new courses.
McCandless said the district is committed to the new courses, citing an African American literature course the school district began offering a few years ago and initially had only six students enrolled.
"We know how much it costs to run a period of school whether you have one student in the class or 150 students in the class. Generally speaking, if we don't have 12 students, we don't run a course. This course we ran with and if there were two people that signed up, we were going to run with it," McCandless said. "As long as I am here, we will run these courses."
McCandless feels like the new courses will have plenty of demand and he said he'd welcome the conversation to make it a graduation requirement.
"I think it is a conversation we would be willing to have, is this a requirement we'd like to make for all students. We are sending children into a world where it certainly would benefit all children," McCandless said.
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