As bus integration in Berkeley’s elementary schools was taking shape in the fall of 1968, an equally bold effort was developing at Berkeley High School (BHS): the creation of an African American (AFAM) Studies Department.
52 years ago, BHS’s Black Student Union (BSU) went on strike with an adamant demand for a new curriculum that represented the African-American portion of the student body. The School Board consented, and in the spring of ‘68 BHS enacted the first high school African American Studies Department in America — which remains the only such department in existence today.
The program consisted of eight courses: Afro-American History, African Civilization, Afro-American Economics, Afro-American Literature, Afro-American Journalism, African Dance, Swahili, and The History of Jazz.
African American teachers were also hired at the behest of the BSU. Clarence Hampton, the original Curriculum Associate for Black Studies, argued that African American educators would be able to establish a rapport with the African American students, empowering them with knowledge of shared identity. “There can be no real integration of the races,” attested Hampton, “until a Black person has respect for himself as a Black.”
These classes were not only geared towards African American Students. White, Latino and Asian students were heavily encouraged to participate in the nascent Black Studies Program to earn a greater appreciation for African culture. The initial reception was a resounding success; over six hundred total students enrolled with others having to be placed on waiting lists.
Today, while classes like AFAM History, Literature, Economics, Journalism, and Swahili continue to be offered at BHS, there are fewer sections available with fewer students enrolling.
When I took AFAM history last year, it wasn’t my first choice. The prospect of being a minority for the first time in my life was daunting, and reflecting on my contributions to an unjust society was even less appealing.
However, I was quickly acquainted with a few of my classmates while we worked together on the “Create Your Ideal School” project at the beginning of the year. Learning about the Ten-Point Program of the Black Panther Party a few weeks later furthered my intrigue.
Every Friday, Mr. Pritchard held community circles, where we animatedly debated the meanings of our astrological signs and our favorite musical artists. By the time my group and I were presenting on the Reconstruction Era for our final project, I felt like I was part of a community.
In a class so susceptible to division, the continuity we summoned proved to be the ultimate catalyst in our greater understanding and respect of one another. Now, I can use my knowledge of AFAM history to contribute towards concerted efforts for integration and implore my peers to do the same. Without my experience last year, I would not be writing this column.
There is no greater need for community, support, and appreciation than in classes such as AFAM History and in schools like BHS.