Waukegan High School junior Amari Patterson had no idea who Annie Malone was.
Her African-American studies teacher, Wendy Barnes, had interrupted the students Tuesday morning as they prepared announcements to be read over the loudspeaker during Black History Month to ask the question.
Malone, who founded a hair and cosmetic business in the early 1900s, was the first African-American woman to become a millionaire, Barnes said.
This focus on lesser-known people and events is what Patterson finds really exciting about the African-American studies course, which was revived this semester at the request of students during a student forum last year.
“It’s black people learning about black people,” said Patterson, who is African-American and Puerto Rican.
Waukegan School District 60 used to offer its high school students African-American, Latino and urban studies courses until about nine years ago when they were consolidated into a semester-long multicultural studies class, said Tom Stonis, the high school’s social science academic coordinator.
Barnes, who teaches the African-American studies course in addition to her duties as an instructional coach, was asked to teach the class because she had taught it previously, she said.
Her approach was to ask the students off the bat what they want to learn and to use that as a framework, she said. The students asked about historically black colleges and universities, the Black Panthers, the history of hip-hop and why certain racial slurs are fine for some people to say but not others.
They also asked about Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old girl who desegregated a Louisiana school and became iconic in a Norman Rockwell painting that showed her dwarfed by the U.S. marshals who accompanied her.
The idea is to move away from the “heroes and holidays” approach to African-American history, Barnes said.
Patterson said much of what she’s learned over the years has repeatedly focused on the same people and topics, like Martin Luther King Jr. and runaway slaves. She said Barnes’ class, unlike some others, hasn’t “whitewashed” the history.
Barnes said it’s been “very concerning” to hear how some students have been taught about slavery — that it’s been whitewashed or taught in a way that’s very sterile.
“How do you whitewash slavery?” she said. “You can’t sugarcoat it. … I’d love to know how anyone can sugarcoat slavery.”
The students “don’t know the details, and that’s where we’re going to focus on,” she said. They’re also having a lot of conversations about the whys, like why it took until the 1960s for the Civil Rights Movement to happen, or why history is told the way it’s told.
The class has 27 students, all of them African-American, Hispanic or multiracial, she said. She said she expects the course will start to draw white students once it gets momentum and word gets out that it’s for everybody.
Barnes herself is white, and she said that while her race was controversial 20 years ago when she first taught the class, she hasn’t gotten any pushback from the students or parents this year.
This first semester will be assessed at the end of year, Stonis said. Using data and student feedback, adjustments will be made if needed.
The hope is also to bring community members into the classroom to talk about their experiences and incorporate some of what other electives — like a new class on Waukegan history — are doing.
The high school also plans on rolling out a Latin-American studies course in the fall, which will be focused on Latin America, the difference and similarities between the countries and their cultures, rather than the Latin-American experience in America, Stonis said.
His perspective is that if the high school is offering an African-American studies course, it should also have something aimed at Latino culture, especially in light of the district’s demographics, he said.
Nearly 80 percent of Waukegan High School’s 4,600 students are Hispanic, according to state data. Another 13 percent are black and 3.5 percent are white.
(Article written by Emily K. Coleman)