The enthusiasm and commitment of the students in every Afro-Haitian dance classroom at Berkeley High School (BHS) are clear from the moment you view a performance. This dedication to the program reveals the high level of appreciation that students of all ethnicities have for the culture of BHS’s African American (AFAM) Studies Department. Students from many cultures and backgrounds participate in Afro-Haitian dance classes, which are but a few of the many courses offered through the AFAM Studies Department.
For 52 years, the department has brought culture and diversity to BHS. It was founded in 1968 when the Black Student Union (BSU) and others participated in strikes and protests to prompt the creation of a department for African American studies. AFAM studies encouraged better representation of people of color among staff and faculty, recognition of people’s civil rights in dealing with law enforcement, and jobs for young people. The BSU’s goals included the elimination of the practices at BHS that prevented Black students from learning about their culture and past.
Spencer Pritchard, the current chair of the department, spoke on the importance and distinct nature of the classes offered within the department at BHS: “[The courses] are empowering to students, and provide a world view that one likely would not receive in their educational experience.”
In addition, Afro-Haitian dance instructor Tanzia Mucker, known to most students as “Ms. Shorty,” said that the founders “felt that there needed to be a department where the children of color could feel like they were a part of something.”
In the creation of the department, the founders also intended to highlight the importance of African American history, literature, and dance in understanding the development of the nation. Dawn Williams, another Afro-Haitian dance instructor at BHS, said that Black history, psychology, economics and culture have been essential in shaping American history. “Being able to study the ways in which Black people have been able to get freedom and rights is a valuable lesson for all and has made an impact on the various historical movements for change by women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and all other oppressed communities,” said Williams. She emphasized that the history of all oppressed groups needs to be addressed in education because no group’s history can be separated from the whole.
In the many years of the department’s existence, it has faced setbacks in its progress and success. Pritchard noted a scare to the department’s resources: “Back in the early 2000s, the department was threatened with budget cuts.” At that time, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers pushed the school district to integrate the program into a larger department that would have made it less distinctive. During the same time, AFAM studies and BHS had to deal with recovery from an arson fire that closed the B-Building for several months and cost the district millions of dollars. The Afro-Haitian dance program, one of the primary factors in the department’s success, has long provided dance classes that connect students to their heritage as part of physical education and arts credit.
Since its implementation, there have been hundreds of performances with thousands of gueFsts attending each. Part of the popularity of this program comes from the revered dance instructor Naomi Washington who taught Afro-Haitian dance at BHS for nearly 30 years and sat as the chair of the department until her retirement in 2019. Williams, who is an instructor in the program after Washington retired, spoke about the important role that Washington played in the dance program and department. “Mama Naomi Washington, who recently retired, truly shined light on our department in the community,” said Williams. “She is such a wealth of knowledge — from the inner-workings of the bureaucracy to the slightest, most subtle details of a dance move,” she said.
Washington was chair of the department through the ‘90s, the period of time that Mucker saw as the peak of the department’s success. At that time, the Afro-Haitian program was as popular as it had ever been. The facilities had improved and more students were enrolled in classes within the department than ever before.
Mucker noted the importance of the dance program in enforcing some of the goals of the AFAM department, specifically uniting students of all races and promoting inclusion. “We make the dance room a place where you can intermingle with each other and learn from others on top of learning [African American] culture,” said Mucker.
In addition to the Afro-Haitian dance program, the department offers various other classes like African American Psychology, Economics, Journalism, Sociology, and Anthropology.
As Berkeley confronts the challenges of a declining African American population, Williams and others hope to honor the legacy of Washington and ensure the department thrives.