African American studies now a bigger part of curriculum at Mount Pleasant High School
Posters hanging on the walls of Scott Smith’s classroom at Mount Pleasant High School commemorate pivotal parts of history like the Little Rock Nine and the passing of the 15th Amendment.
Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” are propped up against the whiteboard, below a list of names: people like Carter Woodson, a historian who helped pioneer Black History Month, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., host of the genealogy TV series “Finding Your Roots.”
“They know about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. We’ve been making a list of African Americans they encounter through history that they haven’t learned about,” Smith said.
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Smith teaches Mount Pleasant’s African American studies class, the first of its kind at the high school.
Students began the year by learning about African empires, going over leaders like Mansa Musa, who was one of the wealthiest leaders in history, or Queen Nzinga, who defended her people against the Portuguese.
Usually, in required history classes, “you hear about slavery, you hear about Lincoln emancipating the slaves, and then they move forward,” Scott told the class. “Of course, we’ve gone a little more in-depth.”
A growing number of districts and schools, both in Delaware and across the country, have begun offering African American history courses in recent years. At some schools, like Mount Pleasant, students can take the subject as an elective.
School boards across the country have grappled with whether to add the class as a graduation requirement. African American history has been a requirement for Philadelphia students since 2005. But countless other school boards have voted down requiring students to take the class — some striking down proposals to even teach the subject at all.
A 2015 study by the National Museum of African American History and Culture found that while teachers may be enthusiastic about teaching elements of black history, only about 9% of total class time is devoted to the subject in traditional social studies classes.
When traditional history classes do talk about African Americans’ role in United States history, the emphasis tends to be on slavery. But black history is bigger than that. For senior Dejah Smith-Showell, it was eye-opening to learn about the empires of Africa that often get overlooked.
“In history, I don’t really get to learn that much about where I come from,” Smith-Showell said. “By taking this class, I could see where my roots are, what caused me to come here. It’s finding my identity in my history.”
In Delaware, African American studies curriculum is approved by the Department of Education. But not every school offers the subject.
Mount Pleasant students were part of the driving force behind introducing the class, principal Curi Calderon-Lacy said. About two years ago, members of the Black Student Union proposed to administrators adding more diversity into the curriculum. Last year, the Brandywine Board of Education approved the addition of African American studies.
“We don’t really do much about [African American history] until it’s February,” Kevin Winton, a junior, said. “Why do we have to wait until one month out of 12 to be learning about African American history, when we could do it throughout the whole year?”
As more schools add African American studies to their curriculum, some are left wondering: What are we telling black students when their history is relegated to an elective, rather than integrated into required history classes?
Any chance for students to learn about history on a deeper level should be welcomed, even if it’s voluntary, Smith said. Required history classes are already so packed with content, that having a class dedicated to African American history means students are exposed to more detailed lessons about African empires and cultures that made their way over to the United States.
“There’s so much to learn and not enough time to teach it in an in-depth manner,” Smith said. “I’m all about any time we can inject history into the curriculum. I’m glad that they’re learning more about their background and heritage.”
Mount Pleasant is nearly evenly split between African American and white students — 45% and 40%, respectively. But Smith’s class of about 30 students is made up of nearly all African American students. Only two white students enrolled in the class.
While she’d love for the class to be more diverse, Calderon-Lacy said she thinks that will happen over time as more students become familiar with the class.
Smith, who is not black, was a bit apprehensive to teach the class at first. He’d studied emancipation and the civil rights movement in college, but didn’t consider himself to be an expert in African American studies.
The semester has been a learning experience, he said, and he’s learned new things about African American history alongside his students.
Noa Becker, 17, is one of two white students in the class. It wasn’t until this class that she realized her U.S. history essays frequently referred to past Americans as “we.” But when writing about African American history, she had to take a step back.
For her, it’s been a privilege to be a part of the class and learn about her black peers’ history and culture.
“I’m an outspoken person, and I realize that for this class, I shouldn’t be the one speaking out, because I don’t have the experience of being a black woman in America,” she said. “I have to be conscious that I’m not speaking over the voices of the people in this class.”
Smith is working to get grant money for a field trip to the Delaware Art Museum to view exhibits on African American art. He also hopes to raise money to take the students to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.