Why all high schools should have a Black studies department

Graphic of a group of diverse students studying subjects such as African American Literature and History
Aasha Turner/Staff

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In 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, both of whom once attended Berkeley High School, formed the Black Panther Party. The Black Power movement inspired the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State University, an unapologetic demand for Black studies and ethnic studies programs. The energy poured over into Berkeley both at the university and secondary level, and, due to student-led movements, the first Black studies department at a high school was born in 1968 at Berkeley High.

Establishing a Black studies department here demonstrated our district’s willingness to interrogate systemic racism, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, power and oppression. It represents a willingness to commit to prioritizing Black educational needs. It reflects a willingness to invest in a department that will actively improve the level of education that all students are able to receive. It is important to understand that while a large scale restructuring must occur in all institutions, establishing Black studies programs in educational institutions is a step toward this rebuild. Every high school should have a Black studies department. Here’s why. 

First of all, establishing a department dedicated to Black studies institutionalizes Black thought and Black humanity. Anti-Blackness has been institutionalized and Black studies programs are crucial to its undoing. Most high schools do not include any courses that exclusively focus on people of African descent. Advanced Placement classes include European history and languages such as German, French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. Without a Black studies course, there is no academic space where centering Black scholarship is required.

Even more, Black studies courses can instill pride and knowledge of self in Black students. Having a Black studies department ensures student access to their culture and history. In a department survey, Black students said that knowing their history was one of the most compelling reasons for enrolling in Black studies classes. We want our students to love themselves and understand the contributions that Black people have made to this country.  

Our students have an opportunity to take a plethora of classes that come from an Afrocentric perspective and highlight the accomplishments and history of people of African descent. We offer AFAM history, AFAM economics, Black psychology, AFAM literature and African diaspora dance and drumming. These courses counter the narrative of the typical Eurocentric curriculum. We place emphasis on healing from racial traumas. We teach our students about the African diaspora and the dispersion of various Black people across the globe. It is important for Black students to see how their culture has influenced popular culture all over the world.

Because Black studies courses offer the proverbial missing pages of history textbooks, all students benefit from learning Black history. We encourage all students to take Black studies courses because the youth have an opportunity to magnify their learning exponentially. Prior to the Reconstruction era, schooling was reserved for white people with money. Black people knew that education was important, yet anti-literacy laws didn’t allow them to read. During Reconstruction, newly emancipated Black people were fighting for the right to public education for Black children and poor whites. By studying the Reconstruction era, students learn that the U.S. government made promises, such as land ownership, to Black people but did not keep them.  

Black studies courses focus on liberatory education. Our students can imagine a world free of oppression and learn to identify and fight racism. Students understand why Black lives matter. Centering Blackness addresses deeply rooted problems, and when our most oppressed people are uplifted, all people’s outcomes improve. We want all students to value the knowledge, history, agency, innovation, resilience and artistry of Black people so that they can understand our historical and current trauma and also develop empathy.  

Our Black studies department plays a central role in organizing campus events that ensure the community-at-large learns about Black history. Not only do the students in Black history classes benefit from the curriculum, but the entire school benefits. Our African diaspora dance/drum department typically hosts shows that bring audiences of more than 2000 attendees. Our advanced dancers travel to other schools around the district for performances throughout the year. Other campus programs include our annual Kwanzaa, Black History Month and Black Graduation celebrations as well as our recent series of events honoring our 50th year as a department. Having a Black studies department provides a space to organize events such as these for the entire campus.

Finally, a crucial way Black studies courses can improve our schools is by recruiting and hiring Black teachers. Education Week reported in its April 2020 issue that about 80% of all teachers are still white. Black teachers are linked to higher expectations for students, higher academic success and lower suspension rates of Black youth. Furthermore, studies have shown that all children benefit from having Black teachers

It is clear that a Black studies department is an asset to a school. Since the latest Black Lives Matter uprisings, more campuses than ever have reached out to our department for help establishing their own classes, programs or even departments. The first public high school for Black students in the United States, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in the District of Columbia, is in its second year of its Black Studies Academy. It’s time for other districts to follow suit. Knowing the impact that education can make on the various facets of our society, we ask the question: Would a police officer have kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck had he taken an African American history class?

Dawn Williams Ferreira and Spencer Pritchard are co-chairs of the African American studies department at Berkeley High School. Alan Miller teaches African American literature and graduated from Amherst College.