Delv­ing into a ne­glected his­tory

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Linda Con­nor Lam­beck

BRIDGE­PORT — A month into a se­mes­ter- long course on African Amer­i­can Stud­ies, Damian Char­riez was com­pelled to Google the name Mansa Musa.

“He was so rich he gave gold away,” Char­riez, a Bridge­port Mil­i­tary Academy ju­nior, shared at the end of class.

Char­riez ad­mits he would never have felt com­pelled to find out more about the 14th cen­tury African king, who was said to be the rich­est per­son ever, were it not for the course.

That is the spark that de­vel­op­ers of the new course — part of a new grad­u­a­tion re­quire­ment for city high schools — were hop­ing for.

“Ab­so­lutely,” said Sauda Baraka, a for­mer school board mem­ber who fought for the

“I’m learn­ing a lot. I never knew about the subSa­ha­ran slave trade or the rulers of West Africa.” Ro­hanna Ed­wards

cour­ses. “It sparked my life­long learn­ing pur­suit ( when I was) in the 10th grade.”

Start­ing with this year’s fresh­man class, the district’s 21,000 stu­dents — half of whom are Latino and 35 per­cent black — must take a se­mes­ter of African- Amer­i­can Stud­ies, Latin Amer­i­can Stud­ies or Per­spec­tives on Race to grad­u­ate.

Such re­quire­ments are rare. Stu­dents in Philadel­phia are re­quired to take African- Amer­i­can his­tory to grad­u­ate. In Los An­ge­les, stu­dents must take an eth­nic stud­ies class.

Out of the gate, there are 199 stu­dents en­rolled in the cour­ses, which so far are of­fered at Bridge­port Mil­i­tary Academy, Cen­tral High School and Bas­sick High.

Fairchild Wheeler, which runs on a block sched­ule, is plan­ning to pick up one or more of the cour­ses in No­vem­ber, and Hard­ing High is sched­uled to do so in the spring se­mes­ter.

Wil­liam A. Mor­ton, a project di­rec­tor for the cour­ses, said that even­tu­ally the cour­ses will be paired up in sopho­more year with a half- year state civics re­quire­ment.

“I would call it pop­u­lar,” said Prin­ci­pal Joseph Raiola at Bas­sick, where all three cour­ses are cur­rently of­fered.

Find­ing The Per­spec­tives their voice on Race course ex­am­ines cur­rent is­sues and dy­nam­ics of se­lect mi­nor­ity groups in the United States. It not only looks at race but reli­gion, ac­cord­ing to the course de­scrip­tion.

Ed Feld­heim, who is teach­ing the class at Bas­sick, said it’s fun to teach.

“There a some points we agreed to hit upon, but mostly we are talk­ing about is­sues ( stu­dents) are all aware of,” Feld­heim said.

The only thing stu­dents need to bring to the equa­tion is an opin­ion.

“Right now, we are lay­ing the ground­work,” said Feld­heim.

In one class, the last of the day, 22 stu­dents were asked to weigh in on the Colin Kaeper­nick con­tro­versy. They read ar­ti­cles and watched clips of the NFL quar­ter­back who sparked a na­tional con­tro­versy by kneel­ing dur­ing the Na­tional An­them.

Asked to write whether ath­letes can make a dif­fer­ence with such a protest or if there were bet­ter ways for Kaeper­nick to get his point across, the class took pen­cil to pa­per for 10 min­utes.

Many ar­gued in writ­ing that noth­ing has re­ally changed, and that all Kaeper­nick suc­ceeded in do­ing was los­ing his job. Oth­ers said his stance was a wakeup call.

Ver­bal­iz­ing their thoughts was an­other mat­ter. No hands were raised the first time around.

“Who has the an­swer?” Feld­heim coaxed. “Has any­thing changed in Amer­ica in last two years? Is this class an im­prove­ment? This class wasn’t here last year.”

One stu­dent fi­nally re­sponded that she thinks things have got­ten worse.

“Why?” Feld­heim pressed.

“It’s be­com­ing more nor­mal­ized,” the stu­dent said. “Peo­ple are numb to it.”

The class in­cludes stu­dents of African- Amer­i­can and His­panic back­grounds. So far, no one in the class has chal­lenged the teacher’s race.

“No one has said, ‘ You think that be­cause you are a white guy,’ ” Feld­heim said. Still, he said, “My race mat­ters; how could it not fac­tor in?”

There is a text­book that goes along with the class that Feld­heim said he will use as needed. The fi­nal project will be a pa­per.

Never knew Ro­hanna Ed­wards, a Bridge­port Mil­i­tary Academy se­nior, said she never had a class that fo­cused on Africa it­self. “So I like that,” Ed­wards said. “I’m learn­ing a lot. I never knew about the subSa­ha­ran slave trade or the rulers of West Africa.” Be­fore the books were cho­sen or course cur­ricu­lum writ­ten last sum­mer, there was de­bate about the jump­ing- off point for the district’s African start Some cen­turies Amer­i­can ar­gued half- year be­fore it should class Stud­ies. slav-ery. on “by From The John book Slav­ery Hope set­tled Franklin, to Free­dom,” upon, gives story. some In Frank of that Gen­ova’s back class at BMA, the book is a start­ing point.

There are also ar­ti­cles, videos and reen­act­ments of what it felt like to be shack­led to the hull of a ship for seven weeks.

“You,” Gen­ova said, di­rect­ing to a stu­dent from his desk to a brown tarp he had laid across the class­room floor. “Now you, and you’re next.”

“Oh, this is the ship,” one of the par­tic­i­pants said as twine was wrapped across his an­kles.

“That’s the skin­ni­est chain I ever saw,” an­other stu­dent said.

“How long were they held in this po­si­tion?” Gen­ova asked.

“Seven weeks,” stu­dents re­sponded in uni­son.

“How many voy­ages dur­ing slave trade?” con­tin­ued the teacher.

“Twenty- thou­sand,” stu­dents said.

“Over how long a pe­riod,” he asked.

Stu­dents knew that an­swer too: 315 years.

Gen­ova con­cludes the ex­er­cise by say­ing he had hoped at least one of the called- upon stu­dents would have ob­jected to par­tic­i­pat­ing.

“You could have said no,” he said. “Slaves didn’t have a choice.”

Dur­ing the same class, the 25 stu­dents dis­cussed a clause taken out of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence that might have abol­ished slav­ery, as well as New Eng­land’s hypocrisy in con­demn­ing slav­ery while still build­ing and man­ning the ships that kept the trade go­ing.

“The topic caught my at­ten­tion,” Char­riez said of the course. Of Puerto Ri­can de­scent, he said he plans to take the Latin Amer­i­can course when it is of­fered in the spring.

“To be hon­est, I had a hole in my sched­ule,” said Deante Mosley, a BMA ju­nior, ex­plain­ing why he took the course. That said, he said, he finds it in­ter­est­ing.

Cather­ine Ro­driguez, an­other BMA cadet, said what she is learn­ing is chang­ing the way she views Amer­ica.

Gen­ova, in his 33rd year of teach­ing, said his goal is to give stu­dents a taste of the sub­ject mat­ter.

“I hope that they learn,” he said.

“We are,” Ro­driguez said.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Frank Gen­ova writes on a white­board as he dis­cusses the slave trade on Thurs­day dur­ing his African- Amer­i­can Stud­ies class at the Bridge­port Mil­i­tary Academy.

Se­nior Ro­hanna Ed­wards, left, speaks dur­ing the African- Amer­i­can Stud­ies class on Thurs­day.

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