They asked to get on the agenda of the Curriculum Committee of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board on Tuesday, and Chair Barbara Hanes Burke, a newly elected representative from the east side of Winston-Salem, obliged.
While Al Jabbar spoke on behalf of the community coalition seeking a mandatory, district-wide African American Studies class during the Tuesday committee meeting, members of Hate Out of Winston stood silently in the back of the room with signs reading “Black History Now” and “We Will Be Heard.”
Destiny Blackwell circled a cluster of tables where school board members were seated, handing out collated packets.
“We have the research here to present it to you,” she said. “If you won’t allow us to present it to you during the meeting, we’ll allow you to take it with you to review…. And we could do the presentation now…. Because the board has used research as an excuse to drag your feet, we’re gonna give you a little nudge. Here’s the research for you.”
Instructional Superintendent Karen Roseboro rose to speak, taking a couple pokes at the report by calling attention to a list of states, cities and public school systems that teach African American studies and suggesting that the community activists differentiate between those that are mandatory and elective, and those that provide a full credit and partial credit. She said staff is planning a trip to Philadelphia in the fall to study the African American studies program in that city’s public-school system.
Roseboro also said, and interim Superintendent Kenneth Simington confirmed, that Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools already has an elective African-American Studies course. A parent with a child in Paisley Middle School asked why she had never heard of it.
James Norris, a math professor at Wake Forest University, pleaded with the board. He cited the Piedmont Freedom Schools, a summer program, as an example of how culturally relevant education can create a spark for black children.
“African-American individuals come in and they’re immersed in their history, and they develop great pride in their history, great self-confidence,” Norris said. “I’ve seen lives turned around by hearing about what others of their same race have done. They’re reading books with African Americans as main characters that are doing wonderful things. And I’ve seen such transformation in so many people…. Many of you might not even know that many of the inventions that were credited to Thomas Edison were actually done by an African American, who was doing all the hard work in his lab. Did he get any credit for it? No. So, things like this are just invaluable.”
While the need to close the yawning achievement gap that disadvantages black students is the moral imperative for implementing mandatory African American Studies, the proponents also cite a benefit to the majority population, writing, “White students who do not receive a multicultural education that truly reflects the history and experiences of their non-white peers will be less prepared to live and work in a 21st Century American society, and will be less successful as a result.”
Burke read a statement on behalf of the school board.
“As an update on the status, I’m announcing that we will include the consideration of a required African-American course as part of our new high-school course offerings process,” Burke said. “New courses come to the curriculum committee for consideration during the October meeting. At our September curriculum meeting we will review background information about African-American history, models of current implementation and related issues.”
Kimya Dennis, an associate professor of sociology and criminal studies at Salem College, smelled a stall tactic.
“That whole letter is typical,” she said. “It’s said all the time at public schools. I promise that you’re gonna talk about it. I just want y’all to remember that you’re speaking with a community who knows the jargon. What I’m encouraging you to do is stop the jargon. Everything in that letter — we’ll consider; we’ll talk about it — there’s really no mystery here. You really don’t have to go to Philly. All this promise of road trips and stuff, it’s really a complete waste. That’s a political stunt to keep people waiting, searching. Don’t complain. It’s gonna be okay. Black folks have been told that for centuries. What you’re doing is the white system’s plan for you to do…. You’re not talking to idiots. You’re talking to communities who are educators. And if you don’t care about that, then you’re part to blame for the inequality in the system.”
Let’s acknowledge something: The debate that’s been aired thus far on the proposal for mandatory African-American studies has featured black school-board members and administrators on one side, and black community members on the other. Like every one of us, they are all implicated to one degree or another in a system rooted in white supremacy, and each person has to figure out how to navigate the system.
“I can guarantee you that I support a mandatory course, but this is a public-school bureaucracy,” said Malishai Woodbury, the board chair. “We’re going to have to work through the logistics…. I don’t play games. There’s children’s lives on the line.”
After the meeting, Woodbury insisted that her emphasis on deliberate speed is not a matter of political expedience. She said district leaders will need to figure out how the course will fit into the master schedule for high schools, will have to survey teachers and principals so everyone is on board, and ensure that the necessary teaching staff is in place.
But Miranda Jones, a member of Hate Out of Winston, said she doesn’t see any real progress to date.
“We cannot be controlled by white supremacy,” she said. “The fear of white backlash is real. The fear of not being reelected is real. But who suffers while we wait? The children.”