African American Studies teachers Drew Ames and Shakur Abdal-Khallaq/ Credit: Needham Observer

While February is typically dedicated to honoring the contributions black individuals have made to American society, it’s always Black History Month in the African American studies class at Needham High School.

History teacher Drew Ames attended a METCO conference in 2011 and learned about similar courses offered at neighboring schools, including Wellesley High School. 

In Needham, the course, now in its second decade, is taught by the team of Ames and the high school’s METCO coordinator, Shakur Abdal-Khallaq. Along with his other roles, Abdal-Khallaq is also a clinician in the counseling department.

“I lead the history part,” Ames said, “And with difficult conversations it’s valuable to have Shakur here to speak to things that I can’t authentically speak to.”

At the beginning of the year, the class discusses general concepts such as race and racial identity before shifting to a chronological study.

“We work through the history of African Americans in the country, but we connect to things that are still happening now,” said Abdal-Khallaq. “Students can bring in events from the news that they need to talk about. Over the last two to three years, that’s been happening a lot more.”

Senior Reese Hurwitch believes this elective should be a required course. “We have open discussion and get to talk through things,” she said. 

A lesson that covered important black Americans from the first half of the 20th century asked students to consider an individual’s life story and determine whether, on balance, it represented hope or disillusionment. Students studied their assigned example in small groups and presented their findings to the class. 

Simon Ettinger and Kevin Mendes created a presentation on Joe Louis, the black boxing star whose 1938 victory over German Max Schmeling was celebrated as a win against Nazism. Ettinger focused on the biracial praise Louis received while Mendes focused on the financial problems that Louis could not escape. 

In the end, the students concluded that Louis’s story was more one of disillusionment. “They respected what he accomplished, but not him as a person,” Mendes said.

Similarly, Mamoud Kamara, Alec Purrington and Eli Kajmo concluded the story of Hollywood’s first African American Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, who played a house slave in “Gone with the Wind,” was mostly a tale of disillusionment. 

“Every success was eaten away at by the racial code of the time,” said Purrington. “She wasn’t allowed to view the opening of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and she couldn’t sit with her colleagues from the movie at the award ceremony.”

On the other hand, Hurwitch and Isabella Barbaria concluded that A. Philip Randolph was mostly an icon of hope. They explained how he formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful union of black workers.

Both Hurwitch and Barbaria said they appreciated how the course adds depth to what they learned in prior history classes. “We learned about African American history in general, but here we get to hone in,” Barbaria said. 

The Department of Education reports that Needham High School’s student body is 2.5% African American, but in African American studies students of color make up about half of the class. 

In addition to being racially integrated, the class is also integrated by ability level, highly unusual for high school offerings.

“That range of abilities contributes to the richness of the class,” said Abdal-Khallaq.

People often focus on the benefits for students in less accelerated classes when they work with students who are taking mostly AP classes, he said. “But sometimes what’s lost is how important it is for the high achieving student to have conversations with people who may not be in their other classes. They find out that they can learn a lot from them.”

Both Ames and Abdal-Khallaq said students sometimes struggle to see past isolated events to discern larger patterns. 

“They don’t always see how individuals had to fit themselves into a box in order to achieve,” said Abdal-Khallaq. 

“We focus on the contributions of African Americans in all aspects of American society,” said Ames. “A traditional U.S. history class primarily focuses on oppression.”

“Students enter the course curious to learn and come out with the broader understanding that they are looking for,” Abdal-Khallaq said.

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