Recently, as I was preparing for class in the morning, I watched the live stream of the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. This came on the heels of Governor Brown signing AB 2016, a bill requiring the development of an Ethnic Studies curriculum for grades 7-12 in California. It then also dawned on me that I would be teaching a section on the history of Africans in the Americas in my High School Ethnic Studies class. To wrap it all together, I also remembered that I took my children to the California African American Museum not too long ago as well. All these memories gave me the feeling that this day would be different.
In class, as the students made their way in, I arranged my materials and waited for them to settle down. I then asked, “what is happening right this very second that is related to the topic we will be discussing today?” A couple of students mentioned the recent shootings of unarmed African American men, and subsequent marches and protests. I acknowledge that this was also happening, and commended them for being so in touch with the very important issues of the day. Still, I kept asking, “what else is happening right now?” None of them knew. I then mentioned the opening of the museum. They were surprised. I asked them to remember this feeling of surprise, and asked them to relate it to the material we would be discussing that day.
We began reviewing a seminal text that covers the history of Africans in the Americas. Since it was a long article (over 30 pages), the students were each assigned a section of it, and they took turns coming to the front of the class to present five important points from their section. The only two African American students in the class both took the opportunity to add a personal reflection during their presentations. The one young woman spoke about how her dark skin and dreaded hair mark her as different, for good or for ill. She also said that, “despite this,” she still demands and deserves respect. The young man spoke about how it was important to know the scientific contributions that Black Americans made because he was going into the sciences himself. Both took the time to really sit with the material and use their own words to express what may have been hard to express before…that they, as people, mattered.
So what is Ethnic Studies? Surprisingly, not many parents know the answer to this question. It is a field of study that focuses on the histories of the people of a nation. Ethnic Studies also educates us on the influences of immigration, wars, economic opportunities, and, as is often the case the enslavement of people, and how this is imprinted on them. It explores our own relationship to the international community and how it helps us define who we are as a nation. It is important that our children know about their collective histories. In so doing, they can begin to see the similarities, but also how differences can and do contribute to progress in society. One of the students asked, “Why aren’t we taught this stuff in our regular school?” Great question! It is a question that is usually asked by my college students when they take my upper level multi-cultural education classes. Those students are juniors and seniors in college! For a high school student to bring up this question demonstrates the absolute need for Ethnic Studies in the K-12. While AB 2016 focuses on 7-12 grade, this is a good start. However, for real change and impact, we need to make Ethnic Studies part of the K-12 curriculum, and embed it in other subjects where appropriate.
Both of the African American students seemed more relaxed at the end of their presentations. More engaged. The young man took off his ear buds (a pleasant change) and actively contributed to the conversations. He began to really listen because he now saw himself in the material. The young woman even gave me a hug after class, a silent one, but it was an acknowledgement that the lesson hit home for her as well. It was as if she infused truth with her own power.
All of our students need to believe, deep in their soul, that they matter. That is why I support Ethnic Studies.
* * *
To find out more about the scholarship and activism surrounding Ethnic Studies at the national and international level, please visit the National Association for Ethnic Studies website.
Please go to the California Legislature Website to find out more about the recent AB2016 legislation.
To find out more about the Long Beach Ethnic Studies Initiative (LBESI), please see the following video.