Riverhead High School teacher Jamaal Boyce with his newly published book, "Teenage Perspectives on the Black Experience in America."

The Riverhead High School teacher who started a new class last school year to discuss the experiences of Black people in America has written a book about the class and his experience teaching it.

“Teenage Perspectives on The Black Experience in America” details the conversations that occurred in the first year of Jamaal Boyce’s new class. Boyce, a social studies teacher in the district for 20 years, was approached to teach African American History and Literature in 2021, but pitched a version centered around discussion, debate and critical thinking on topics he said are traditionally taught in a school setting.

READ MORE ABOUT THE COURSE: New class brings conversations around Black history and culture into Riverhead

Boyce’s course is in its second year and has nearly twice as many students as last year. The book, published by J Carmichael REI L.L.C., can be found on digitally and on paperback and hardcover through bookselling websites, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble

RiverheadLOCAL sat down with Boyce to talk a bit about the book, how his course has evolved and how his course fits in the current hostile climate of race-related education in the United States. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

What made you decide to write the book? When did you start it? And how do you document for your writing?

“This course was new. And I’ve never done anything like it. So my wife kept telling me, you know, you should write a book, because I love to debate, I love to discuss things. And I had another friend who said the same thing. So I had no intention of writing a book; I’m not an author. And basically, what I did was, after a lot of the discussions in the book, I took notes. I kept some of the assignments they gave me and I took some notes about what was said, what I said, what they said, and I just held on to it. And then in 2022, around February, my wife kept pushing me to write a book, write about the course. And then another friend of mine said the same thing. And I said, alright, I’ll put together a manuscript and I’ll go from there. So I started writing the book in about March — late March, early April, because the school year was almost done at that point. So I started writing it then. And I wrote it and I finished it towards the end of the school year. So that’s pretty much how the book came about. 

So I kept notes just in case, I had no intention of writing the book, but my wife and a good friend of mine kept pushing me and pushing me. And I also thought it would be good to have something tangible to go with the course, so when I describe the course people can see what I’m talking about. Because it’s very hard for people to understand what we’re doing in the class, because they think it’s like a regular African American history class  — it’s not. So I figured if I could write a book and put something out there, they could actually get an idea of wow, this is what they’re doing that’s different.

You tell a story in the book about how the course was kind of created from a pitch you made up to personally avoid teaching African American history. And then you expected it actually to be denied because of the controversial subjects that you pitched to the administration. Talk a little bit about that. 

Yes. So you’re talking, this is around 2020-2021. And so critical race theory, it was a hot button issue. All around the country people are [saying] we’re anti, we’re pro [critical race theory]. And then the 1619 project was another one that everybody had an opinion on. So at first, when they asked me if I’d be interested in African American history, I said no, because it’s bland to me, it’s just another history class, I like to do things that are a little different. So I really had no interest. 

And I just didn’t want to be an African American teaching an African American History course. What I find is most schools, they’ll have an African American History course or something to that effect, but there’s really no substance to it. It’s just in the catalog so it looks nice, and they want to just placate to the public that we’re doing that, but it’s nothing different. I want to do something, or wanted to do something different. So I came up with a Black Experience in America. And I said, ‘Either they’ll let me do this, or they’ll say no way and then they’ll leave me alone.’ This was like a no-lose situation for me. 

So when I put together the topics and everything, I said in my head, ‘there is no way the district is going to allow me to do this.’ Especially with what was going on with CRT, even the misconceptions — because people have misconceptions, even when they see the title of the book. So I say, ‘oh, there’s no way.’ And then a few weeks later, one of my administrators said ‘go ahead.’ I was shocked. I said, ‘Are you sure you read what was on this list?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ So that’s why I applaud the Riverhead school district and the community. I really applaud them for taking this risk, because at the time I created this there was a lot of racial tension, especially the George Floyd situation had happened. There was a lot of tensions going on at schools about what was going on at schools. 

So I was pleasantly surprised. And when they said yes, I said, ‘Okay, well, I gotta own up to my word.’ And that’s when I did it.

You stress in the book that throughout the class discussions, the students don’t know what your opinions are about the issues — 

99% of the time. There’s rare exceptions, but 99% of the time. Especially in the book, on each chapter in the book they do not know my opinion on either side.

And that extends to the reader. When reading you constantly say ‘I’m not giving you an opinion about this,’ and that you’re both kind of a moderator and a devil’s advocate for students and people reading the book, as you’re making them think. Can you talk about why you thought that was important to the course?

I believe that schools, and life, indoctrinates people. They tell people what to think and they don’t want them to challenge it. I’ve always been a person who’s been ridiculed for thinking outside the box by friends, peers, colleagues. They’ll say, ‘Well, what about this? They’ll ridicule and laugh. 

So I kind of created the course because I think with most of our students, we don’t know what they’re thinking. We have no idea. And it [the class] gives them a safe space to say what they’re thinking, to voice it. And it can be challenged, but they can be challenged back. And in the end, nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. So that’s a big thing with me is, I don’t want to indoctrinate my students. I don’t want to tell them something — which I think a lot of history classes is indoctrination, because we’re telling one side of the story and we’re not giving them another perspective. One of the big myths is that all black people think the same. We don’t. So you could take something like slavery, and I could argue ‘well slavery had no effect on me, as it had on this black person.’ And people aren’t used to hearing that. 

So I don’t want to indoctrinate anybody. I just want you to get to think critically. And we can agree or disagree, but just to understand there are two different sides to a story. So with everything in the book, I do have an opinion on every single topic in the book, but the reader or none of my students know what it is. I just show both sides.

Did you find yourself at all struggling with not revealing your positions in the course or having to actually advocate for something you maybe didn’t believe in? 

No, that’s actually pretty easy, because most of my life people have told me what I think doesn’t matter anyway. No, it’s actually very easy for me. Because I always teach my students: critique your way of thinking,  because I know that I’m not right, or wrong. Factually, things can be right and wrong, but just because I say something doesn’t mean I’m right. I could be wrong. And it creates a humility in me where I’m basically like, ‘Jamaal you may think this, but it does not mean that you are right, you understand? So what I teach my students in the classes is, tell me what you think and then critique your way of thinking, find all the flaws. I’ve done that with my ways of thinking. 

So it’s easy to play devil’s advocate, because I may think one thing, but I already know what you’re gonna come back at me with — and I already understand it. So it’s actually easier for me not to tell them. 

If you ask my students this year, they’ll tell you ‘we do not know what he thinks.’ They have no idea, because I go back and forth. And so it’s actually easy for somebody like me and I actually do think it takes a special kind of person to be that way. Because we’re all biased, we all have our preferences, but the thing with me is, I can check my biases. I already know what my biases are, so I’m aware of them. And I can check them, so I don’t let them come in.

In the book you describe a few units that you go through with your students: Black, as a word; Black versus African American as it relates to identity; whether racism is actually harmful; the N-word; stereotyping and imagery of Black and African Americans; Black culture. Which one of these conversations with your students made you yourself think the most?

Good question. So if you’re talking about what made me think the most. Pf those topics, the two I would say that made me think the most, to hear from their side, is the N-word and Black Americans: Victims or Victors?. Those really made me think the most from them. 

It’s funny, because I’ve had people who already bought the book, they started reading it, and I’ve had six people tell me already that once they got the book, the first chapter they went to was the N word. Their take on the N-word and its usage really got me thinking; how they view it and so forth and so on, and why they view it the way they do. So that really got me thinking. Again, I never told them not to use it or how to think about it, I just challenged their perspective. 

And that African Americans: Victims or Victors? [chapter], that’s a hard one. Because if you look, it’s a tough topic, because both are correct. But I wanted them to pick the one they leaned more towards. And it’s kind of like, are Black Americans in America victims or are they victors? So we had a good discussion about that. That had me thinking. 

Another one that had me thinking was their dating preferences. So their preferences on dating, I kind of already knew what it would be because I’ve talked to other Black women and so forth, so on. But that really made me think about their dating preferences and how it’s going to affect them later on in life as far as picking a spouse, a partner, so forth, so on. I’d say those three.

At the end of each chapter in the book there are questions, like you would give students in a textbook. Talk about why you chose to include those in the books.

So the reason I include that in the book is because the book is written in conversational style. So I wanted the reader to think that they were in the class with myself and the students. So I put those questions in the book so that they got a sample of what I was asking to students, and I wanted the reader to answer it for themselves, to make them think. And there’s no right or wrong answers. So the question is open ended; it’s not a test. It’s just a question: what do you think? And I want the reader to challenge their way of thinking, like I asked my students to do the same thing.

The book is based on the conversation that you had with your students last year, which was for a small class.

Eight students. Nine unofficially officially. 

Most of those students were Black. And at the end of the book, you said that the class has expanded to a larger number of students this year, and it has a different racial makeup than what it had last year. What have you seen change with respect to the views of the students that you have in the course now, and the conversations going on in the class, compared to the “pilot” group of students?

So I have 17 students in a class. I have white students, Black students, Hispanic students, and I have an Asian student. So now, the perspectives are actually broader because I have more students. So in my class, there’s no unilateral, one way of thinking, as much as there was last year on a particular topic. Not that they all thought the same last year, but this year there’s more difference. 

So I have two white students and they see things from a different perspective than some of the Black students, sometimes. And then sometimes the same white students will see things one way with the Black kids, and another black kid will see something different, or the Hispanic students will see something different. So this year, as opposed to last year, I’m actually getting more perspectives simply because it’s a bigger class and I have a more diverse racial group. 

The other thing I will say is I’ve had some students who are not African American in the class telling me, ‘Mr. Boyce, I never thought about that,’ as it relates to black people. I really didn’t have that last year because most of the students in the class pretty much were part of, I’m using air quotes, “Black culture,” or affiliated with it. The students I have this year — I haven’t done black culture yet with them yet — but some of them probably will not get Black culture. So they’re coming with an outside perspective and looking at things like, well, I never thought about that. 

So, giving an example. We just talked about the Black national anthem that was sung at the Superbowl. So one of my white students said, ‘Mr. Boyce, why would they sing the Black national anthem? Is that segregationist? So I said, ‘it could be, some Black Americans say that.’ But I gave him the history of the black national anthem, why it was written, and so he said, ‘Oh, I never thought about that’ and explained how it could have been a unifying force, so forth, so on. But then I presented the other perspective, why some Black Americans are saying ‘no, don’t sing the Black national anthem.’ Because you’re only singing it in February for Black History Month, you don’t really do it any other time. And if Black Americans want to be considered American, why should we have our own separate national anthem? Now, he doesn’t know what I think, I just gave him both sides. But he didn’t understand why the Black national anthem was really there. And I don’t know if he changed his perspective, but he had an understanding of why it was written. So I think we’re getting more perspectives this year, than last year, because it’s an even more diverse group.

Because the course is conversational, how does a bigger class change the dynamic of the class overall?

It’s harder to get to each student. So when the class ends, I don’t have enough time to get to each student. So sometimes we have to take it to the next class. But one of the flaws of having a big class like this is that you can’t get to everybody who wants to say something. That’s one of the flaws. That’s why I’m a big personal believer, it should be intimate. And it’s actually better if I only have eight or nine kids at once, because sometimes these kids have a lot to say about their experiences also, and the class goes very quickly. 

So that’s one of the things that makes it hard, but it’s a good problem to have, because they’re really engaged. They’re really active. They all want to say something and they’re itching to say something. So that’s a good problem to have. I don’t think most classes have that issue, which is why my class is different than almost any other class.

Is there only one section in this course?

Yes, there is only one section. And I want to keep it at one section, because I don’t think most students are ready for this. So it’s really for juniors and seniors. I have a couple of sophomores by permission. So because it’s for juniors and seniors, it pretty much cuts out 9th grade, which is the biggest class and then 10th graders. And then you have to have a certain level of maturity, because I can’t talk about the N-word deep with kids who are immature. So I prefer if the student, before they join, comes to me, I talk to him, I get the idea of their mindset. I don’t want students who are taking the course to go ‘Oh, there’s no tests. I want to take that.’ No, no, it’s not the right kind of student.

So I know people want the class to be three or four classes of it here at the high school with 33 students — no. Because then it wouldn’t be different than any other course. If you put 33 kids in a class, I guarantee you at least five are not going to be interested, they’re just seat fillers. I don’t want that for this course. I want each kid to have an impact on the class and the class have an impact on them. So sometimes smaller numbers does work.

What was the biggest lesson you learned writing the book and reflecting on the first year of the course?

Writing a book is hard. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.

I would say, the biggest lesson I learned is teaching like this is very tiring. It wears you out because you’re trying to get people to look at things from a different perspective, and I’m sure you probably already know, that’s a hard thing to do. If a person believes something, they just believe it. It’s very hard for them to open their mind to something different. So some of the discussions I had — when I was writing the book and I was going through it again, I said, ‘man, I remember that discussion. That was, like, deep. That took a lot out of me. 

One of them was presidential racism. It wears you out, just trying to get people to look at things. Not to change — we don’t want them to change — we just want them to acknowledge that there’s a different perspective. So that’s probably the lesson that I learned: doing this style of teaching is very tiring, because I can get up and teach A and B and C and blah, blah, blah — that’s not a lot of energy. But when you have kids engaging like this, and you have to challenge them, and they are challenging you back — back and forth — I recognize that it’s a very tiring experience when you really try to show other people a different perspective. 

The one reason why I like doing it with young people, as opposed to adults, they’re more likely to open their minds. Most adults do not want to do so. They’re set in their ways, they don’t want to change — and not that they have to change, but they don’t want to acknowledge somebody else’s perspective many times, not all. That’s why I’d rather do it here with the young people than older people.

 So the biggest lesson, I would say: this was a very tiring experience, the whole thing. But I feel it was worth it. 

Who would you recommend read this book? Is there an audience that you had in mind when you started writing?

So the biggest audience I had were people who like to critically think, who like to think for themselves and are open to different perspectives. I would start with them. Somebody who just wants to hear something different. Oh, what’s your take? They would be my first audience. 

Next, I would actually say students, because I want students to see there’s a class out there where you can voice your opinion, you can challenge the teacher, and you’re going to be challenged back. A lot of our students don’t believe they can challenge the teacher. In fact, if you challenge the teacher, they feel like they’re gonna get in trouble — because most classes are designed for you not to challenge the teacher, which I say is indoctrination. So there’s a class that exists where’ hey, come back at me. What do you got? Challenge me.’ And the third thing for them is, you’re not wrong. That’s the key point. Which is why my students feel comfortable talking to me.
They know they’re never wrong, it’s just a different perspective. And we’re playing devil’s advocate. And so the voiceless now have a voice. 

In most classes, these kids cannot express the things that they expressed to me. They’re just not allowed amd some teachers might tell them, ‘No, you’re wrong.’ I never tell them they’re wrong. I just challenge them back. And in the end, nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong. 

Third, I would say are our educators. I think the way we do education in this country is too much to one side. So somebody asked me, what’s the difference between my course and an African American history course? And I say the difference is they teach African American history and experience, I discuss African American history and experience. That’s the difference. So the kids don’t feel like I’m teaching to them. We’re discussing and having a conversation. African American history is teaching to you. I’m discussing with you the Black experience. So I think our school systems in America, we’re too much to one side of indoctrination, this is how it is, test, test, test, test. And we could use more classes like this where there’s no right or wrong answers, you just have to critically think.

You touched on my next question a little bit. There’s a lot of political conversation going on right now nationwide regarding teaching of topics surrounding Black people in public schools, such as the controversy surrounding the AP African American Studies class. As an educator interested in talking about race related issues, are you keeping up with these topics? And where do you think your course and this book fits into that conversation?

So I keep up with the topics. We actually discussed the AP studies course being banned in Florida. And of course, I play devil’s advocate, I said, that could be a great thing. I say it’d be a fantastic thing, I gave a devil’s advocate to them, because not all Black Americans agree with that course, with some of the stuff that was in the curriculum that the very least. 

Now I can’t speak to most other African American history courses. I don’t know the curriculum, I don’t know exactly what they’re doing in certain states or whatever. But what I will say is, in my humble opinion, they’re all doing the same thing for the most part. There might be minor differences, but in the end, they’re teaching to kids, they’re testing them on certain things. I’m sure there’s discussions, but I don’t know if they have the discussions that I have here. In my course, my students can actually put discussions to the course. So, for example, one of my students, she brought in a discussion, pedophilia in the black community. she came up with a discussion, she bought it at a table, and then the class had a discussion about it. I don’t know how many other African American history courses or any courses that are doing that. So she came with it. She did her research. She presented it. 

In the book I talk about a student who created his own PowerPoint — 40 slide PowerPoint — to have a discussion about something and we challenged him back. There’s no tests in my class. So in my class, I can go on and I can talk about a subject or topic for three weeks. There’s no rush. In most other classes, if you have tests, you got to get to the next thing. So to me, that’s not learning, because learning never ends. If students want to continue with something, let’s continue it. I’m not going to chop off something they may be interested in, which is what most classes have to do, because in the end, you have to take a test. So that’s where my class is different. It’s open ended, it’s discussion based. What do you guys want to talk about? What did you see? Let’s keep rolling with it. And most classes aren’t like that. It’s legit discussion based. So we talk about experiences in history. But we’re not teaching it, I’m discussing it with you. So they’re learning, they just don’t even realize that they’re learning. It’s just filtering in. And that’s the main difference between my course and most of the courses that are out there.

Do you think it has a future, a type of course like this, in the country in public education?

So here’s my belief, I hope I’m wrong: I don’t think most schools — some schools will — I don’t think most schools would want to push to this, because I honestly don’t think most schools what students critically thinking. I think they say they do, but I don’t believe most schools want students who are saying what they believe and think, I really don’t believe so. That’s why I applaud Riverhead for giving me this chance. I think Riverhead really was a pioneer in this because I’m telling you, I thought they would say ‘no, we cannot do this,’ and they did. Most of the schools don’t want it — they want the status quo. 

The other thing I will say is, I don’t think most schools will do it because most schools, I’m going to be honest, are not interested in Black history. They do it for the month, they hang up the posters. On March 1, they take them down. I always say to students, because we talk about Black History Month, should we have it or not? I said, if I put up a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. in October and Harriet Tubman October in the front hall, would that be okay? Well people will say ‘well, why are you putting it up? It’s not Black History Month. Why do I need Black History Month to put up a poster about Martin Luther King, Jr. or so forth, so on? 

So I think most schools in America are inauthentic when it comes to Black experience and Black history. They might have it on the catalog, but it’s just to keep it safe, to placate the public and say, ‘well, we have it.’ But if you go into the class, there’s really no substance to it. It’s just in the catalog. I don’t think most schools around America really want the voice of students being propelled out there. They want to Hachette keep it silent, we tell you what to do. You do this, so forth and so on. So I don’t think most schools want their kids to speak up.

Do you have a thought or any perspective on why you think that is?

Because the reason why I think that, is because our society is based on indoctrination. That’s just my humble opinion. We people want to indoctrinate, they want you to believe certain sets of rules. And when you challenge it, you’re a rabble rouser, or you’re causing trouble. I don’t care,  think what you want to think. But we don’t want people to do that. So it’s not just schools, it’s religion, it’s politics. Everybody wants to tell you what to think. This actually gives the students the opportunity to think what they want and voice it. I don’t think most schools want that. I just hope I’m wrong. It’s just my humble opinion. I don’t think most schools want that. 

So that’s why I applaud Riverhead for doing this, because you’re giving a voice to the voiceless. And how can you indoctrinate somebody if you tell them to think for yourself? If you think for yourself, I can’t indoctrinate you. If I’m always telling you this without giving the other side, that’s indoctrination. If you look up the definition of indoctrination, it’s literally getting a set of beliefs without giving the person a chance to critique it or challenge it. Well if you look throughout most of life, if you watch cable news, if you watch certain things, go to school, look at religion, where’s the opportunity to challenge what’s being said? You really don’t see it that often. And I think that’s a product of schools in America. Where’s the critical thinking? They don’t want much critical thinking. Why? Because certain groups want to control you one way or the other. And that’s just my humble belief. 

But I do think some schools would be willing to take it on or would be daring. I think Riverhead was daring in doing it. The community showed tremendous support, which I wrote about in the book. I just thought it would be a divisive issue and it didn’t turn out that way. So I was pretty happy about that. And so that’s why again I say, Riverhead is doing something different. It’s not just an African American history class on a catalog we have to placate the public. No, this is something different. This is something that creates change. And I think if you ask most of my students, they’ll tell you it’s having an effect on them and a change. And I think most schools don’t actually want that. It’s to get them in, graduate them, get them out. And then that’s what I think American public education is.

Has teaching this course changed your way of teaching in general?

No, because I’ve always taught this way for many years, which is why a lot of — I said in a book, a lot of former colleagues and people who worked here, maybe some still today, they don’t appreciate my teaching. Because I let the kids debate and discuss; it’s not a lesson plan and sticks in the box. I’m more of a free thinker, which is why, like I said, I’ve always been ridiculed for thinking differently. Sometimes people look at me like I’m nuts, or they’ve always ridiculed me, and I guess, subconsciously, that’s kind of why I created the course this way, so that people can feel like, ‘Hey, you can say what you want.’ Just perspective, different perspective. 

And so I think I’ve always taught that way. It’s just that when I taught certain subjects, or I had a test or regents to give, how much of that can you do? So I was limited. With this course, I’m not limited. There’s no limitation. And it gets animated, we go back and forth. The kids come at me, I go back at them — but they know it’s not personal. And they know I’m just challenging their way of thinking. And you need the right teacher to do it, because there’s some teachers they will not respond to. I’m not saying I’m the best teacher, I’m just saying it just takes the right kind of teacher. But with that being said, in my other classes I’ve always tried to do this, but it was always limited.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the book that we didn’t touch on in this conversation?

No. I hope the book just gets people to think. I hope people remember that what’s said in the book is not necessarily what I believe, or what I think. And I hope people pay attention, because the book is written in a style of conversation. And I asked a ton of questions in the book, because I’m trying to get the reader to think, to look at things from a different perspective. And I truly, sincerely hope that people, when they read this book, it creates a change in them to just be a little more open minded to different perspectives, and to look at the experiences of Black people and just understand not all Black people l look at certain topics the same or think a certain way on a certain topic. Because every topic in this book, there are black Americans who go on one side and will go on the other side. We all don’t think the same way.

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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: alek@riverheadlocal.com