#RepresentationMatters: The community push for a mandatory African-American history class continues
Editor’s note: There was a typo within a quote: “black life achievement gap” should have read “black/white achievement gap.” Also, there was a small misunderstanding regarding one of the activist groups involved that has been clarified within the article. The online version has been updated with these changes.
At least five people honked their horns or gave a thumbs-up as they zoomed down Bethania Station Road on Sept. 24. Those honks and thumbs of approval showed support of the “NO CLASS = NO EQUALITY BLACK HISTORY NOW” sign that four Hate Out of Winston organizers held on the side of the road right before the Winston-Salem Forsyth County school board meeting that same evening. Four people spoke to the board during public comment to show their support for a mandatory African-American history class. Local advocacy groups Hate Out of Winston and the Winston-Salem Local Organizing Committee want a stand-alone, mandatory African-American history high school class that will be required for graduation, as well as an expansion of the existing black history and Latinx infusion curriculum. At the Sept. 24 meeting, Lillian Podlog, an organizer for Hate Out of Winston and former teacher from Florida, stood with others and held the sign that caught drivers’ attention.
During the time for public comment at the Sept. 24 WSFC school board of education meeting, Podlog addressed the board with the following statement: “I hope you saw the video of people marching in the street in Philadelphia for black history, and I hope you felt how important this is. I hope you watched the video that we sent you of students from Connecticut. Over 200 students giving written and spoken testimony at their state legislature for a mandatory black history class and felt how important this is. I hope you watched the students from your school system, middle schoolers and high schoolers stand here being televised and watched, witness them and really witness what they were saying. We are calling for a stronger infusion curriculum, that means accountability, training, funding as well as a stand-alone black history class required for graduation. I hope you know that black history is uniquely important to the shaping of this country, this hemisphere and our economy. It is not just about seeing yourself in the curriculum, although that is really important, it is about black students seeing themselves in the curriculum as the development of this country came at and comes at their expense. Because black students don’t know their history, it impacts their mental health and well-being, when white students don’t know black history, it leads to racism and white supremacist violence. By all means, incorporate Latinx history, indigenous history, women’s history in the curriculum, but don’t use that to deflect. We need black history, and we need all of those other histories as well. When we talk about Latinx history, we cannot talk about the history of Latin America without talking about black history, and the way that was shaped. Black history opens up the conversation about race and about class that students are already having…Connecticut and California are considering the class, and there have been pushes in New York and Michigan. The need for this is a conversation we are having as a nation. Let us be a cutting-edge school district; let us show the impact of black history on achievement, the mental health of our students and racially-motivated violence. Let’s make a legacy. You all can do it; we can do this together.”
Podlog said since the new school board was brought in, they floated the possibility of introducing a mandatory African-American history class in January, but there was not much follow-up discussion.
“This new school board was brought into office this January, and it is an all-female school board, which is the first time at least since the ‘90s, and the first democratic majority since the ‘90s, so this is really an incredible moment to push for this with a re-energized movement,” Podlog said. “[Hate Out of Winston] has been pushing and pushing and pushing for the past few months now, and as a result of the community pushing for it, they have discussed the black history class, how it is taught and multicultural education in general.”
Podlog argues that a stand-alone African-American history class is a much-needed opportunity to talk about race and how it functions in American as well as all the histories that touch black history in the country.
“This class can have an Afrocentric curriculum,” Podlog explained. “I know that’s a word that scares white folks, but all that means is a history curriculum that is taught from the viewpoint of black people and that centers black people, as opposed to our other history – which centers white people. It’s not enough to bring in stories of black people to celebrate; we have to talk about the structure of society and race and blackness.”
Podlog noted that the knowledge of black history and racial literacy is required to be a “fully-responsible citizen of today’s society. These are not supplementary topics. Understanding race, understanding the full, vibrant scope of black history is critical for engaging in this society.”
“As a personal example, I worked for a time in a school in Florida,” Podlog said. “In Florida, fourth-grade social studies are focused on Florida history, so I taught about the Seminole Wars. That topic was so important to my students because we talked about maroons and maroon communities; we talked about solidarity between black and indigenous communities to fend off the U.S. military. And yet, most Florida history classes spend a lot of time on industrialist, Henry Flagler, and almost no time on the Seminole Wars.”
Podlog goes on to say that the WSFC school district needs to identify what its priorities are, “it’s about the WSFCS needing to look at their history curriculum and say, ‘This is important history, and it is important for students’ identity development.’”
Willette Nash has a Ph.D. in leadership studies and is a retired public school educator/administrator. Nash was also the former WSFC Director for Equity. She was also a multicultural studies professor at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky.
Nash explained that the Winston-Salem LOC is a group of African-Americans in the city working around issues of education, community development, community organizing, violence reduction and agriculture. The Winston-Salem LOC is “a result of the 20th and 10th [anniversaries] of the Million Man March, which took place on Oct. 16, 1995, and Oct. 10, 2015,” the LOC’s website states. The Winston-Salem LOC was initiated by Brother Effrainguan Muhammad in May 2015. According to its website, the mission of the Winston-Salem LOC is “to address the concerns of the African-American students within the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School system. Our main focus is to ensure a more inclusive curriculum that can be used within the school system. Our mission is to find ways to improve reading scores (emphasizing the importance of third-graders reading level), closing the achievement gap, and increasing graduation rates of African-American students. The education committee of the (L.O.C.) seeks to assure African-American students successfully matriculate through the K-12 system.”
Nash explained that the Winston-Salem LOC’s ministry of education saw the lack of African-American history, and approached the district in 2016 with a request for a mandatory African-American history class.
“Because these are laypersons, they do not necessarily define where that curriculum should start,” Nash said. “So if you ask me as a curriculum developer and one who is grounded in multicultural theory, African-American history starts in Africa.”
Nash said she helped develop a black history-infusion curriculum in 1993, and it was revised in 2017-18 to include the nations and cultures of the peoples of West African communities, empires and civilizations, as well as an addition of Latinx history, in accordance with state standards.
Podlog helped clarify the infusion curriculum and explained that in K-12 social studies, there are “state-mandated standards” that teachers are expected to teach. “For each of those standards, Dr. Nash and others who worked on the infusion put together resources that allow teachers to teach those standards using black history (and for some standards, Latinx history).” Podlog said that as it stands, the infusion curriculum materials are “nice resources for teachers, but there is no accountability, no requirement that teachers teach it (with the exception of the eighth grade project- that we’ve been told is required), no significant education of parents that this infusion curriculum is available.”
Podlog mentioned that Nash and her team started adding Latinx history to the infusion but that “this work needs to be expanded, and should bring in resources for other marginalized groups. However, there is no point in expanding this curriculum if it’s not being used – that’s the key for us.”
Podlog explained that the infusion curriculum, as it stands now, is still Eurocentric, and this is by necessity to comply with state standards.
“The stand-alone class can center black history from the perspective of black people,” Podlog said. “Yes, we need to celebrate various cultures in our schools, but that is woefully inadequate – we need students to also deeply understand how race, culture, class, gender shaped history.”
“Latinx students are close to black students in terms of population, so we don’t want it to be another 20 years before they take that into consideration,” Podlog added, noting the importance of updating the infusion curriculum. “They can turn around and do the infusion immediately. If they agree to do a class, we want them to do it well because there is a lot of opportunities to do it poorly. The community is going to be very watchful in how they are doing it. We want them to take their time, not too much time, have a conversation about the process and what it is going to look like.”
In 1995, Nash said, the school board approved the implementation of the lessons in social studies; however, it is not required for teachers to use the available resources, “which is one reason why there is a push for a mandatory class implementation.” Nash said that some of the content in the infusion curriculum is transformational, which means the students will learn the same history, principles and generalizations in the standard curriculum through an African or an African-American lens.
“For instance, there is a lesson within the kindergarten curriculum that looks at families, and with the infusion curriculum, it gives those kindergarteners a chance to look at the African-centered notion of family and what those values entail,” Nash explained. “Within that eighth-grade unit, students will have an opportunity to engage in social action, which means looking at the dynamics of inequality, injustice, or even strengthening and building the African-American community and identity. Students would be able to be involved in some activity design to express those. In terms of multicultural curriculum, our model encompasses all levels from contribution to social action. That is what the curriculum looks like. It is really rich, rich infusion.”
Nash supports the push and efforts of the community and local organizers for this class because she believes it will bring in “voices of African-Americans and work such as this helps to create a more positive identity development for African-American students in the USA.”
Nash said when the infusion curriculum was introduced in 1993, there was concern about negative imagery and effects negative effects meaning, if “African-American students see themselves in negative ways, they began to internalize those messages and images, and it is somewhat a demoralizing kind of impact. There is no incentive to aspire to anything within this society because the message is that you don’t have the capacity. It is stigmatizing.”
Nash noted that, at that time, 36% of students were African-American in the district, “so by right, they should learn some of their histories.” According to the WSFC school’s website, in the 2018-19 academic year, “40.2% of the students are white, 28.5% are African-American, 24.5% are Hispanic, 4.0% are multiracial, 2.5% are Asian, and less than 1% are American Indian or Native Hawaiians/Pacific.”
Nash also noted that there was also a belief that if the African-American history course was mandatory, teachers would have more respect for their African-American students.
“We have a black/white achievement gap in the district that runs on average between 30 to 40 points different,” Nash said. “That is just not sustainable, that is not sustainable locally when we have an economy that is based on research and innovation.”
Nash and the LOC believe that the mandatory African-American history class in high school, as well as the enforcement and expansion of the infusion curriculum throughout Kindergarten through eighth grade, would help close that achievement gap.
“We’ve got to educate students better than what we are doing,” she added. “Whenever we leave out one group, in terms of their ability to access the benefits and to be gainfully employed, the entire community suffers. African-American history is engaging for African-American students and other students as well.”
Nash recalled that she was in her early 30s when she first delved deep into her own history as an African-American woman, and she credits Essence and Ebony magazines for educating her about African heritage.
“I have been an advocate of this for a long time, almost all of my adult life, and continue to be an advocate and do the work personally because it was liberating for me,” Nash said. “It liberated me from the internalized oppression of growing up during the Jim Crow and growing up during segregation, and it’s a counternarrative to the way America defines me as a black woman.”
Nash said the reason why she continues this work is because she knows that African-Americans have “made significant contributions to civilization, and many of them were academic, they were not just in sports, and they were not just in entertainment.” She added that it is imperative for marginalized students to understand that there are many possibilities for them.
“I agree that everyone’s history should be apart of the curriculum, the goal of the work of the multicultural education department was always to bring in those other narratives and those other perspectives and those other voices.”
Critics and skeptics may think this mandatory class is not needed or that the focus shouldn’t just be on black history, but on all history. Nash said that the goal for the class is to include all voices, especially “those voices that are absent from the curriculum.”
“Every marginalized group in society deserves to have their voice in the narrative,” Nash said. “Every marginalized group in this society deserves to have access to the benefits of what it means to be American: uninhibited without discrimination and deserve to live with dignity. Because when you disadvantage, discriminate and marginalize one group, you make it easy to do it to others.”
In June, Visit Winston-Salem rolled out a new slogan for the city: Look Forward Travel Back, and Nash made an interesting connection with the slogan that ties back to African culture.
“Looking at our past in order to help us understand how to move forward,” Nash said. “Winston-Salem doesn’t know it, but that is a Sankofa, and Sankofa comes from West Africa.”
Sankofa, according to Wikipedia, is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it,” and associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates to: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
Sankofa is also Nash’s adoptive first name, “because it really just describes my journey into understanding who I am. I had to go back into African history to really understand who I am as an individual and how I choose now to define myself.”
Nash said she knows that there are powerful people who will choose to not move forward with past inequities and that the community will have to “continue to push and collaborate and be authentic about what they want.”
Miranda Jones is a special education teacher at North Forsyth High School and is involved with the Winston-Salem LOC and Hate Out of Winston. Jones credits the initial push for the class to Brother Ken Rasheed, a founding member of the LOC, and said she got involved in activism because he asked for her help. In spring 2016, Jones said she was invited to a LOC meeting by Nash and was instantly smitten with what she saw.
“For me, it was just magic; I walked in the room, and I saw all of these beautiful, intelligent black people,” Jones said. “They were saying they wanted this class.”
Jones said she has always taught from a culturally relevant perspective, so she kept attending meetings, signing petitions, and doing anything she could do to get the school board to take the class seriously.
“We worked tirelessly, but I think at some point, we all got very tired,” she said. “Ultimately, [the former Superintendent] told us no, and the work just kind of petered out, I guess. We just didn’t pick it back up instantly, except for intermittently; Brother Ken would call me and say, ‘I need your help,’ and whatever I could do, I would help.”
In January, during the heightened tensions surrounding the Confederate statue in downtown Winston-Salem, Hate Out of Winston was formed, and Jones began attending their meetings, as well as advocating for the removal of the statue.
“When we knew the statue was coming down, Lillian started talking about what are the other things we wanted to do,” Jones explained. She then suggested that the group look into advocating for the mandatory African-American history class. “For me, it was perfect because I think this group was really pivotal in creating some real justice for black people in Winston-Salem.”
However, Jones was hesitant to jump back in. “We were told no once, I felt at times we were disrespected, we were blown off, we weren’t taken seriously, and I didn’t want to go through that again,” she admitted.
Jones said that Podlog was staunch about continuing the effort for the class. Jones said she called Rasheed to see if he wanted to jump back into the cause. Jones explained that Rasheed was, like her, cynical but “so passionate even in his cynicism by saying ‘why do we have to ask for this? Why do we have to keep asking? No one asks to teach European history, think about how insulting this is.’”
“I told Lillian, I think I am going to take a back seat on this,” Jones continued, “I don’t want to open myself up to any more hurt, I am not feeling good about it.”
Jones said her passion for the implementation of the class comes from her obligation as a teacher to fulfill the needs of her students. One of those needs, she said, is understanding and confronting stereotypes and bias.
“Right now, it is pivotal because we are idly in a time of heightened racial unrest with our president,” Jones said. “And with what we see in terms of people feeling comfortable using racial terror, I think there is no time like the present to teach white children and black children, mixed children, Asian children, children who are apart of the LGBTQIA community about African-American culture as a way to facilitate not only knowledge but compassion and understanding, and to really stop centering the narrative around white men.”
Jones is also concerned about how African-Americans are presented in the current curriculum and how that representation might affect black students’ identity and self-perception.
“African-Americans in the curriculum, as it is now when it is being infused, they hear about slavery,” Jones said. “They are not hearing about Marcus Garvey, about African queens like Yaa Asantewaa, they are not hearing about the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, they are not hearing about Fannie Lou Hamer, they hear about the enslavement of Africans.”
She argues that if the curriculum presently in place isn’t working, in terms of closing the achievement gap with minority students, “how about teaching the students the knowledge of self; have a curriculum in which they are reflecting and then, of course, create accountability and progress monitoring.”
To those that are skeptical of the class, Jones asks, “Have they ever been skeptical about white American history?” She said there is a lot of supporting data that shows children do better when they have this multicultural knowledge.
According to the data that the LOC and Hate Out of Winston presented to the board, some key statistics show that after taking a similar course, “at-risk high school students were 21% more likely to attend classes, improved their GPAs by 1.4 points, and went on to earn an average of 23 more course credits. (Dee & Penner, 2017). One study confirms that high school students that participated in another course like this one were 9.5% more likely to graduate and about 9% more likely to pass a given standardized test. (Cabrera et al., 2014). A survey of South Carolina public school teachers, principals, and administrators found that 62% believe that students’ reactions to courses and materials about the African-American experience are positive, while less than one percent consider students’ reactions negative. A total of 93% of respondents considered their schools’ attitude, either receptive or highly receptive towards the teaching of the African-American Experience. (Dulaney, 2011).”
The research estimates that this will cost the school approximately $150,000, based on an estimate of Connecticut’s budget, a district about half Winston-Salem’s size.
(The full data analysis can be found here.)
At a seemingly packed curriculum committee meeting on Oct. 15 (which I watched on Hate Out of Winston’s Facebook live feed), results from a survey taken by WSFC high school social studies teachers that gauged student interest for mandatory African-American, Latinx and Native American classes showed that there is definite interest for these courses among high school students. (The numbers of those surveys will be updated in the online version of this article once the meeting minutes are posted.)
WSFC superintendent Dr. Angela P. Hairston recommended strengthening the existing infusion curriculum and continue using it. Vice-chair of the WSFC school board and chair of the curriculum committee Barbara Burke said she would honor her word to the many community supporters of the class and offered a substitute recommendation in favor of it, “given interest and importance for this.” Burke, Leah Crowley and Deanna Kaplan agreed with her recommendation and voted to bring it to the full school board at the next meeting, which will be on Oct. 22 at 6:30 p.m. in the Education Building, located at 4801 Bethania Station Rd. Podlog said that there would be a chance for the public to discuss the curriculum committee’s actions at the Oct. 15 meeting regarding the class. The full board will then decide during that meeting if the class will be implemented.
“The board, I don’t think, often cares about activists or community members; it is parents that make things happen,” Jones said. “We need support from all different types of people across so many different lines…I also want people to know that this is not going away, the LOC came out of Winston-Salem, we don’t fold easily. We are going to keep coming back and keep demanding because black people had to demand since we have been in this country.”
“Teachers like me are going to keep taking risks,” she added. “I don’t care what the cost is; they can label me the crazy teacher I’ll be that if it means that children that look like me know that they are beautiful and they are brilliant.”
Ricky Johnson, a founding member of the LOC, said he put together much of the research that the LOC and Hate Out of Winston presented to the school board. He said that high school was an important time for teens to find a sense of self, and he said that a mandatory African-American class would help build confidence and give all students a different perspective than what they usually learn about during Black History Month.
“The LOC presented [the school board] with studies and research that shows it will not only benefit black kids, but it also benefits white kids,” Johnson explained. “One of the [WSFC school system’s] core values is diversity and inclusion. But the actions of the last board that kind of pushed this away is going against that because it is like, you want to diversify everything but the curriculum?”
Johnson has three children, who are not quite old enough to be in the WSFC school district just yet, but they will be in a couple of years. Johnson wants to be sure that his children enter an environment that will build their confidence up as early as possible.
“It is important because it builds confidence with students and makes them want to learn.”
Maia White, a parent of a child at Northwest High School, saw Hate Out of Winston’s sign at the Sept. 24 school board meeting but was not aware of what it or the group stood for.
“I didn’t know about that at all, I have just been reading a lot, and just a lot of things I have noticed for years, but I had never taken action to it,” White admitted. “I have a younger son and a baby on the way. I already have one in the school system, so this has to change, children need to know this. I can only teach so much at home. And yes, I can tell them about certain people, but I think it is something that all children should know about. It shouldn’t just be having to teach them at home. I believe that there’s a lot of children out there that don’t have the opportunity; don’t have parents to teach them some of this stuff, and the ones that are taught it at school, that could be the change in their life.”
White came to the Sept. 24 school board meeting to voice her opinion and support for the class because “this is important across the board, it shouldn’t be just history; it needs to be in science, and there are new people that are doing things here as well. So, it shouldn’t just be open to the past, the past is important, but there are also new people out here doing wonderful things.”
She brought up Shalisha Morgan, aka the Geek in Heels, who owns her own computer and phone repair business in Hanes Mall.
“If this was something that was told about or put out there, there could be more like her,” White said. “That is why it is important for history.”
“In some way, this should be implemented in the schools, and these children should know about it,” White said. “Just that one person’s story could change one child’s whole entire life; it could change their outcome. Some of these kids are living in low-income houses, and their situation isn’t the best, but like I said, it could just be that one story that changes their whole perspective.”
During the time allotted for public comments at the Sept. 24 meeting, White asked the board why her daughter’s class never reads books about black or Latinx children. She said her daughter is Puerto Rican and black, but her peers don’t understand how she can be both.
“It is not something that they are used to seeing, and it is not something that has been presented to them, and it shouldn’t just be up to parents,” White said, clarifying that parents should be teaching their children things. “But at the same time, this stuff needs to be put into the school system, and it needs to be everywhere…there are so many important people that are not being taught, so I think the curriculum period needs to be looked at.”
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.