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Kids In Philadelphia Can’t Graduate Without Taking African-American History

By James A. Merritt

Nationwide, daily news makes it apparent that race relations need to be improved in America. Escalating numbers of police brutality claims, divisive political campaigns, and horrific economic numbers make it clear that Blacks in America are suffering. Recent polls indicate that non-Black Americans are beginning to see this as a fact too. The question remains, what can we do as a country to improve our current situation. One academic approach can be found in Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, students are required to take a one-year course in African-American history.  They  cannot graduate if they don’t successfully complete the course. The scope of the course is comprehensive, focusing not only on resistance and protest traditions, but also on the cultural history of Africa and the African diaspora. This mandate, the first—and virtually the only—of its kind, has been around for almost a decade. But is the class enough?

Some students think the lessons are just plain history lessons and not thought provoking discussions on current events.  One student, spoken-word poet Kai Davis, felt that “In a class that spoke about the history of Africans and Black Americans, we did not speak about race sufficiently” and that, as a result, “most students left with the same mindsets they entered with.”

And while the curriculum is substantial, sometimes the teaching approach falls short. Students study things like African civilizations, the middle passage, and the civil rights movement. “The plight of people of color was given a voice,” was one student’s positive summary. But certain teachers choose to present that content almost as artifacts, rather than as parts of a larger, ongoing narrative of oppression and resilience.

Student Gabrielle Richardson said that although the course expanded her knowledge of African-American history, “the way it was taught made it seem that racial injustice was a thing of the past. There was no correlation of historic events with current politics or culture. It was taught in a way that isolated the past and the present.”

One example she gave was the class’s treatment of Trayvon Martin’s murder.  The class simply “acknowledged that it happened and moved on.” Another student, Andrew Wilkins, said: “To this day, I am confused as to what type of emotions this course intended to arise from its students.”

But if the class can be vexing for students, it’s no less so for the people standing at the front of the room, who sometimes fear that introducing current events and encouraging interpretation and debate will lead to controversy or open conflict. “It’s uncomfortable for white teachers to speak about race,” said George Bezanis, who has taught African-American history at a school. “Certain ideas, like white privilege—some people don’t know how to approach it.”

Ken Hung, a teacher said many teachers simply don’t have any comparable experiences in their own education. “We teach the way we were taught, and many of us don’t remember our teachers covering these types of topics. That’s an interesting point with ethnic studies. There’s a critical mass of people who want to teach these topics, but we don’t have the background because we didn’t go through it in school, and there aren’t many resources available.”

No single curriculum or teaching style can prevent Ferguson from becoming history that repeats itself. But classes like Philadelphia’s African-American history course do have the power to teach one invaluable lesson to students of all races. It’s called empathy.

Dana King, who has taught numerous African-American history courses, put it a different way: “What are the children who grow up to become police officers learning in school, and who are their teachers?”

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6 thoughts on “Kids In Philadelphia Can’t Graduate Without Taking African-American History

  1. A. B. Madyun

    This is not to downplay Caucasian teachers…that is the one’s who are truly committed, and sincere in attempting to properly teach our African American children. But, it just seems to me that a white teacher is not capable of being as effective in teaching a course in African, and African American history. How could they since they are not African American? It reminds me of when my daughter first went off to college at the University of Pennsylvania. She told me that she was taking a course in studying the religion of Islam. Being Muslim myself, I asked her was the teacher a Muslim. Her reply was
    o. I asked her, then, if your teacher is not Muslim, how can he/she teach you your religion when it is not his/hers?

    Reply
    • Maggie

      A lot of parents have absolutely NO business trying to educate their children because they themselves haven’t a clue. Ignorance only teaches ignorance no matter what the race of the parents and the child.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: No Graduation For Philadelphia Students Without Successfully Completing A Course In African-American History | Ear Hustle 411

  3. Craig

    One of the oldest tenets of life is on the temples in Egypt. And it says simply “Man know Thyself”. Thus it is wonderful that these students are learning their history but the question is are they learning their “real” Black history. For example how far back does this so called “Black history” go? Does it teach the students that Imhotep was one of the first and greatest doctor of medicine. Does it teach them that that the story of Jesus and Mary was predated by over a thousand years by Osiris and Isis. Are they taught that Hannibal was one of the greatest generals that ever fought and won a war? If they are not learning their true “Black history” then this whole concept is a joke.

    Reply
  4. Fee

    I don’t care how much the plight of black America is pushed down the throats of non-blacks, especially whites, they will never understand the full magnitude of the black struggle which occurs on a daily basis.

    Reply

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