Courtesy photo: Jamaal Boyce/Riverhead Central School District

A new spin on the African American History and Literature elective for upperclassmen at Riverhead High School brings Black culture and race relations in America to the forefront of class discussion. 

Aptly named “The Black Experience,” the class is taught by Jamaal Boyce, a Black man and a social studies teacher in the district for 19 years. He said he was approached to teach African American History and Literature this year, but pitched a version centered around discussion and debate that better fit his skill set as an instructor.

“What we’re doing in the class are things that they normally would not traditionally be taught in a school setting… I’m giving them the opportunity to look at things and analyze it and come up with their own conclusions about it,” Boyce said.

Boyce wants students coming out of the class knowing things about Black and African Americans that they were never exposed to before and having been engaged enough to understand different perspectives on issues that could be considered “controversial.” 

“The problem I think in our society is we assume that all people think the same,” Boyce said. “So some people may think I’m talking about Black Lives Matter, and I’m telling them Black Lives Matter is good — there are black people who are not for Black Lives Matter — the students aren’t going to know my position. So we will discuss it because it is in the world, we cannot hide from it.”

The class is discussion based and has no hard structure to it, Boyce said. One day, he might pull something from the news for the class to talk about, on other days, a lesser known historical event featuring significant Black Americans. He leads the class into debates and discussions, often playing devil’s advocate, and countering their perspectives and preconceived notions with arguments on all sides.

“What I intend to do is to get them to think,” Boyce said. “If I play devil’s advocate, I might give another perspective to challenge what they said to see how they would respond so they can look at things from another perspective.”

“I don’t want them going on social media and letting people on social media think for them. I don’t want them watching network news and letting them think for them. I don’t want their parents thinking for them,” Boyce said. “These are young adults who are going out into the world who have to learn to think for themselves and learn that there are multiple perspectives to things.”

Some topics the class has debated and discussed so far include the pros and cons of having a Black national anthem played at sporting events and whether African Americans should take advantage of offers from countries like Ghana to move to Africa. Boyce wants to also expose students to topics which he said are less focused on in the Black community, such as health and investing. 

The class has no tests. “A lot of the work is reactionary assignments where they’re reacting and telling me what they think and then explaining to me why they think so,” Boyce said.  

“And the other work is research-based,” he added. “Because I don’t want to indoctrinate the students, I want them to be educated. Education, a lot of times, is you searching out the answers for yourself, without somebody telling you.”

Boyce said the students “love the class” and that some have told him it’s their favorite class of the day. The class is just seven students — five Black students, one Native American student and one Hispanic student. The intimacy of the class works to its advantage, because students feel comfortable to speak freely on issues they can relate to, Boyce said.

“They seem to really, really enjoy the course because it gives them a chance to think freely without somebody indoctrinating them or telling them what to think, and they get to share their experiences,” Boyce said. “I always say the course is kind of like therapy, because a lot of these students are saying things that they’ve never set before or never let out, and now they get a chance to say it and let it out and for a lot of people that’s what they need in life, they need to be able to speak their experiences to help them.”

“And I’m not a therapist — I’m nothing like that,” Boyce added. “But just expressing it sometimes is good for people and they have a chance in this course to do it. Whereas I think almost no other class in a traditional school setting would be able to do so. So it’s something different. I think it’s something needed.”

Carter Richardson, a senior in the class, said he joined because he has taken classes with Boyce before and enjoys his teaching style. He said “the name The Black Experience, it kind of  draws the eyes. It’s very interesting.”

Richardson said Boyce’s teaching style has always kept him thinking. The conversation around whether the Black national anthem — a song called Lift Every Voice and Sing, originally written in 1900 by Black composers and civil rights activists about their struggles for liberty, to celebrate the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday — should be played along with the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events, changed his mind on the subject after a rigorous discussion. 

“Everybody originally were like, ‘yeah, we should have a Black national anthem,” Richardson said. “He made me really think… It was amazing because I didn’t think I’d switch my opinion after hearing the other side.”

Richardson said conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement is a running theme of the class. “Learning about it has been really interesting, because usually in a classroom setting this would be something that people don’t want to talk about,” he said.

Richardson, who is one of the five Black students in the class, said the conversations have led him to learn more about his racial identity and the history surrounding civil rights activists.

“There’s many things in Black culture that I don’t even know about,” Richardson said. “Many people think that since I’m Black I know about these things and I don’t. They aren’t taught in school. So the fact that I’m also learning new things that I never even thought of before is really cool.”

Boyce said the district’s administration and parents have been supportive of the course.

“[The administration] knew that I’m not telling the kids what to think,” Boyce said. “I’m exposing them to different things and asking them to think for themselves: critical thinking.”

Although courses examining the unique cultures and histories of different ethnic groups are nothing new, they are growing in popularity and becoming commonplace, according to the National Education Association, an organization that advocates for their inclusion. These classes are part of the curriculum in certain states, such as California, which will start requiring public school students to take at least one ethnic studies class starting with 2030 graduates.

Boyce sees this type of curriculum becoming commonplace in the future of New York and the United States. “I think 40 or 50 years from now, if all states go towards ethnic studies, we’re gonna probably stand and say ‘well we were one of the first ones to do it,’” he said.

After experiencing just a few months of what the class has to offer, Richardson agrees with Boyce on the importance of learning about different perspectives.

“I feel like many students are just let off in the world not knowing anything [about ethnic groups],” Richardson said. “I really hope in the future that this becomes a mainstream thing.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]