The View From Here

The View From Here: African American Studies

by Tucker Foehl, Head of School

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, the scholar commonly referred to as “the father of Black History,” established Black History Week in honor of Abraham Lincoln (born on February 12) and Frederick Douglass (who was born enslaved and did not know his actual birth date but chose to celebrate it on February 14). The week called attention to a history that so many Americans blatantly disregarded and that so many obtuse Americans deemed lacking educational value. Woodson fervently believed at the time—a sentiment that rings true today—that “Black people should be proud of their heritage and [that] all Americans should understand the largely overlooked achievements of Black Americans.” 

In what later became Black History Month, celebrated today across the United States and Canada, we have set aside a specific month to honor the contributions of African American thinkers, writers, scientists, artists, educators, politicians, athletes, and leaders, among many others, to reflect on the Black experience, the enduring struggle for freedom and equality, and the enormous achievement of African Americans throughout our nation’s history. While we all know that this history should be studied and known every month of the year, we also know that there is no such thing as American history without Black history at its core. As we all reflect on Black history month this year, I wanted to share what Black history means to me and how it has impacted me as a person and as an educator. The simple truth is that my African American Studies degree provided the foundation for all of my professional endeavors—it is foundational to my values as a person, at the core of my work as a leader, and it is central to any success I have had as a Head of School at SA. 

I first attended an independent school in my sophomore year of high school at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware. It was my first exposure to private school and I immediately felt like a fish out of water (the fact that I had to wear a tie and a blazer to class did not help). Yet, it was in that environment where I had an unexpected transformation in understanding of who I was as an American and the forces of history that shaped my own identity and the society that surrounded me. 

I had a Humanities teacher and varsity soccer coach—a white man who eventually became the Head of School at St. Andrew’s during my senior year—who piloted an American Studies/African American studies class at our school. He emphasized the scholarly importance of Black history and Black literature—it was non-negotiable to him—and our reading list included books like Beloved by Toni Morrison and Light in August by William Faulkner, works that explore the legacy of racism and slavery in the lives of everyday people. We were a racially diverse school and his family also held a weekly affinity group for students of color at his house, which was not common in the early 1990s. It was an early and important lesson for me about the importance of studying race, and it served as an important model for the role that educational leaders have in advancing equity and inclusion in our schools. The course also opened up a world that had been mostly hidden from me, one that had been largely whitewashed and intentionally removed from my schooling, and I quickly realized that to more fully understand who I was as an American required that I better understand what America was to those who were not white. 

I eventually earned my undergraduate degree in African American Studies at Wesleyan University, and I wrote my honors thesis on Frederick Douglass and the importance of literacy and direct action in the abolitionist movement of the 1850s. Studying the African American freedom struggle across the multiple centuries of America’s existence—first as an ideal and then as a nation-state—made me quickly realize that the past, present, and future of that struggle (along with the freedom struggle of so many other groups of people) was the central story of American history. Within that story are all the principles and values of any true ideal of American democracy and, without it, that democracy would ultimately fail.

Over the past few years, there has been an alarming increase in concerted efforts to discount, erase, and minimize the teaching about anything related to Black history, with the Florida Department of Education sounding the dog-whistle even louder by stating that African American Studies “significantly lacks educational value.” As Woodson stated almost one hundred years ago, “if a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” The current debate about the AP African American Studies curriculum is not just about putting limits on learning about the Black experience, but it is intrinsically linked to the current threats to our democracy at this particular moment. The more we learn about the African American struggle for freedom and equality, the more we bear witness to the strengths and weaknesses of our collective democracy.

As we collectively work to honor and celebrate more stories and histories at SA, I want to call attention to a few examples of the ways in which our school community has been observing Black History Month. At last week’s Community Meeting, Visual Art teacher Hillary Younglove shared an inspiring presentation that celebrated the work of four contemporary Black artists (you can view it here). And in Rodney Fierce’s AS Black America class, which I guest taught this afternoon, students have started  their study of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun, which explores the struggle of a middle class Black family in the 1950s. [On a related note, Rodney will be appearing next month at Sixth Street Playhouse in their production of Raisin! See below for more information]. Rodney’s class has a number of meaningful field trips planned over the coming weeks, including a visit to San Quentin State Prison (which will connect with this week’s moving presentation and Town Hall with Sara Whitaker of Gideon’s Promise; read more below). They will also visit St. Andrew’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Sacramento, the oldest Black church in California.     

Often when we think about history, we think about people and occurrences from a distant past, often occurring somewhere else or someplace far removed from us. It is important that we look locally and connect with what is happening in our own communities. There are some local resources and organizations listed below as you explore and engage with the Black History Month throughout the region. Sonoma County has also compiled a list of resources and events happening locally to celebrate Black History Month .

I hope you will all take a moment to reflect on what Black history means to you, the lessons you want to share with those around you, and the ways in which that history has impacted your own self-understanding and identity as an American. 

Additional Resources

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