Ava Sexton, Grade 12, Staff Writer
In the summer of 2021, the High School of American Studies Committee for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (CEDI) approached Principal Alessandro Weiss with an idea for a new elective: African American Studies. The proposal was accepted and the new elective was implemented in the 2021-2022 school year, taught by Ms. Jacqueline Waite Johnson.
The idea of incorporating Black history into school was not new for Ms. Waite Johnson. “The curriculum has been in the making almost for a lifetime, or the lifetime of my teaching,” she said.
During the pandemic, Ms. Waite Johnson started a book club with her brother and his wife. Their focus was African American history; soon, they realized how much rich history was missing when the American narrative left out the African American perspective. Ms. Waite Johnson knew “this [was] information that students and young people need.”
Ms. Waite Johnson’s goal with the class is to give her students a more well-rounded view of their nation’s history. “U.S. history cannot be effectively taught without African American studies, because when we as black people move up, society moves up,” she said. According to students in her class, this has been achieved so far.
When asked about the impact of this class, Alicia-Nicole Dekle, a senior, said, “[There are] gaps in my knowledge have definitely been filled in a way that I don’t think they would have been able to if I hadn’t taken this class.”
Brianna Gallimore, a senior and the co-head of the CEDI, agreed, saying the only disappointment was that she was “actually hoping more students would take it so … more of the collective school [would] learn about African American history.”
Gallimore’s statement brings up an important question: should this class remain an optional elective, or should it become a required course?
Ms. Waite Johnson believes it should be required and provides a few reasons why.
Chiefly, making the course a standard graduation requirement rather than an elective would open doors to more resources for the class. Because the course is an elective, Ms. Waite Johnson has based the curriculum on her personal research because “there is no [organization like] AP College Board that supplies certain information or gives certain instruction” for her.
Secondly, because the course is not mandated, students who already have an interest in African American History are taking it, whereas those who would otherwise be uninterested are arguably those who need it more. “I really would love the course to be something that is not an elective,” said Ms. Waite Johnson. “Because an elective means you can opt in or opt out.”
Her students agree. “I don’t think it’s okay for people to be able to opt out of an important part of history or plead ignorance to not knowing things about the black community when they chose to do so and decided not to,” said Deckle.
“It's already the kids that would already be doing the work on their own [in the class], whereas other kids who need it more aren’t in the class,” Gallimore added.
Currently, the extent of African American Studies in HSAS’s curriculum is essentially the development and abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the Harlem Renaissance. But there is so much more than those three events, which is why the CEDI advocated for a new elective to introduce students to the world of history they’re missing.
I don’t always like to view it as black history or African American studies, I like to think of it as the true American Story,” said Ms. Waite Johnson.
Would it be possible to make African American History a required course? Ms. Waite Johnson believes it’s more realistic than one might think. “I think that it is [tangible], because I had gone on election day to a professional development that was hosted by the NYC Public Library System (NYPL), and they are actually working on creating an education center that would help educators like myself be able to effectively utilize the NYPL in order to make resources available to students,” she said. If resources become more available to teachers, it would become easier to develop a full standard course that all students could benefit from.
Overall, everyone involved in the class believes that taking it is necessary to have a full understanding of American history. The African American History course, whether it’s an elective or a requirement, offers students an important perspective on the American story.
After the introduction of a new African American Studies elective at HSAS, students and faculty are left debating whether or not it should become a required course.