Photograph by Sophia Rodrigues-Bell
For 50 years, the African American (AFAM) Studies Department has been a monumental part of Berkeley High School (BHS). The department celebrated its 50th anniversary kickoff event on October 20, marking half a century of teaching BHS students about the African American experience relative to a national and global perspective. The department includes humanities based courses that strive to teach about Africa’s past through language, literature, history, dance, drama, and spoken word.
As one of the only departments of its kind in the U.S., celebrating 50 years shows how lucky students are to have such a wonderful program on campus. “The department is unique because it is so rare at the high school level. It makes you want more and seek out experiences that you otherwise may not have when you leave [BHS],” said Robin Vegt, an AFAM Studies and Berkeley International High School (BIHS) history teacher. For both staff members and students, the AFAM Studies Department has become an integral part of expressing identity, culture, and history. Vegt described how the department was a crucial part of her high school career and how it affected her life. She said, “I was a teenager searching for my identity and the African American Studies Department helped me along in that journey. The teachers were supportive and helped me feel confident in community so that I could move on to the next phase of my life.”
For students, the department has created a sense of community among African American students and faculty at BHS. Daija Rogers-Breland, a BHS senior and founder of the Black Girls Rise Club, has been involved in the department all four years of high school by taking Afro-Haitian dance classes with Naomi Washington and overall, promoting the department. She described how the department “really brings community within colored people and the African American people at this school because there’s only 400 of us out of a 3,000 student school.”
A key aspect of the department has been the connection to their alumni, who continue the development and growth of the program. This has not only created a network of people outside of BHS, but it has helped to form a close community. Many alumni not only attended the event but have remained very involved in the department.
The kickoff event featured music, food, various booths, guest speakers, games, and activities for kids. Organizations and clubs held booths, as well as several jewelry and clothing boutiques, which featured African style and patterned pieces. Also, inside the Jacket gym there was a creative display of African print quilts that featured the story of African Americans in the United States as well as inspirational quotes from black leaders. However, the highlight of the event was the many guest speakers who gave performances ranging from spoken word, songs, and speeches. Many speakers touched on topics such as racism and discrimination, sexism, self-love, and empowerment. Many young students involved in various clubs on campus spoke about activism and their role as teenagers in the fight for equal rights.
It’s important that our school continues to fund and support departments like the African American Studies Department as they contribute to the diverse within the BHS community. The 50th anniversary of this department shows how unique BHS is as an institution. Nearly no other high schools have an African American Studies Department, let alone one with such dedicated students, teachers, and alumni.