“It’s a very, very dark world, but you can’t be afraid to be a source of light.” These words, spoken by a middle school student in Oakland, California, and quoted in a New York Times article, illuminate the premise of a groundbreaking program now underway in that school district. Designed to counterbalance racial inequality and the dearth of opportunities available to African-American boys, an elective class called “Mastering Our Cultural Identity: African American Male Image” has become part of the curriculum of 20 of the district’s schools, for third through twelfth grades. Its impact has been nothing short of transformative, changing not only the way these young men perceive themselves but their aspirations as well.
The first school district in the country to have an Office of African American Male Achievement, Oakland is placing emphasis on lifting black boys above the difficulties that beset them. This came about five years ago, after the district was cited for the vastly unequal suspension rate of African American boys, which stood at 42 percent when they made up only 17 percent of the district. The course was designed to achieve several elements:
- to apprise the young men of all that is stacked against them
- to underscore the proud heritage from which they descend
- to fuel their aspirations and goals
- to equip them with the tools to withstand the “Matrix” of negativity aimed at them to enable them to succeed in school and in life
Toward this end, the teachers focus on accomplishment and students’ positive attributes, with names going on the board for these reasons rather than for negative reasons, for example. Phone calls home follow positive achievements instead of failures in grades or behavior. Taught solely by black men, the classes encompass African-American life:
- The lower grades promote African-American images, telling the stories and legacies of African Americans.
- High school students delve into African-American culture and history, from ancient civilizations to the present.
- A host of other Afrocentric courses are in the works, from literature and history to entrepreneurship and political engagement.
The result is that attendance is up and so is the percentage of African-American students on the honor roll, with boys going form 16 percent to 25 over the last three years. Moreover, their suspension rates have dropped as well and the bonds forged between students and teachers in these classes is priceless. Plus, at least half of the students enrolled in the classes are now heading off to college, with scholarships.
The pride, self-respect and sense of responsibility instilled in these young men is beyond measure. Not merely an exercise in building self-esteem, these classes provide real strategies for success, place a high premium on living up to self-imposed standards, and encourage them to see themselves as highly capable and then to strive for it. With similar initiatives being enacted in other cities across the country, momentum is gathering for making a real change in what has been a detrimental paradigm for these students.
The only factor overlooked is one noted in the article as well: the need to provide training for white, female teachers, who can have difficulty relating to African-American boys and, as a result, are more punitive toward them for behaviors that are not even deemed worthy of reprimand in other students. Yet, having said that, such mistreatment is precisely the type of situation that these classes are intended to address, teaching the students to combat and overcome it. After all, even in the world beyond school, there’s so much more for these young men to overcome than anyone else. Their ability to meet these challenges, persevere and succeed is the real measure of their manhood. They’re already well on their way to becoming men of stature.