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Must Read: Annette John-Hall

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The following was written by’s Annette John-Hall (2/19/08):

With the days flying off the month of February, I thought it would be a good time to sit in on African American history in Philadelphia.


It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly three years since the School Reform Commission made its own history: voting to make Philadelphia the only major school district in the nation that requires every student to complete an African American history course in order to graduate.

The reviews are in. Four gold stars, from classroom to classroom.

From the very beginning, this idea was a no-brainer.

And that’s despite naysayers’ complaining that a mandatory course in black history was unfair, that it ignored other groups.

Those folks needed Saturday detention.

It doesn’t take a math whiz to understand that a student body made up of 65 percent African Americans needed a cultural compass, one that points to a time long before Kunta Kinte was rooted into our collective consciousness. One that continues long after 50 Cent’s crass commercialism.

And one that doesn’t get stuck on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Debunking stereotypes

It’s history that has some of its origins in ancient Egypt, to which I found myself transported with the rest of Michael Thompson’s ninth graders at W. B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences last week.

Thompson’s students – most of them African American, but a few white and Latino – busily created posters of ancient Egyptian gods. The songs of Youssou N’dour – himself seemingly a living god in his native West Africa – provided the musical backdrop.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher more enthusiastic about his subject than Thompson, 37. His favorite part of teaching the course, he says, is proving that Africa is a birthplace of civilization, not just a target for stereotypes.

He gets joy at pointing out to his students that Timbuktu isn’t some cartoon-like destination that people get “kicked all the way to,” but is an intellectually rich city in the West African nation of Mali.

Still, the reaction he elicits has been, well, all over the motherland.

“I can tell that most of them are excited, because they express it,” says Thompson, who is white. “But I’ve had African American students say, ‘I don’t care about this. I’m not Egyptian.’ It’s stunning.”

On the flip side, “I’ve had white students tell me black history is not U.S. history. I tell them, if you don’t think it is, you’re not watching Barack Obama.”

Empowering history

Thompson wants his students to see that the more they learn about themselves, the better their chances of making their own history. That point was driven home last week by, of all people, Chris Rock. While growing up, the comedian had few aspirations and felt he was just another black boy, invisible in working-class Brooklyn.

Until he learned his history.

Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, while tracing Rock’s genealogy for the PBS series African American Lives 2, unearthed a family gem: Rock’s great-great-grandfather was not only a Civil War veteran, but had served as a South Carolina legislator and owned acres of land.

Against all odds, Rock’s great-great-grandfather, a former slave, had managed to live a version of the American Dream that even Chris Rock felt locked out of. The revelation was so profound, it reduced the hard-edged comic to tears.

“Until I lucked into a comedy club … I assumed I would pick up things for white people for the rest of my life,” Rock told Gates. “If I’d known this, it would have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing.”

“Nothing” won’t be an option for Monique Davenport. A Saul freshman, she intends to become a marine biologist.

Davenport is only 15, yet she’s already prepared for the alienation she may face. Because, chances are her colleagues won’t look at all like her.

But that’s when she’ll remember her freshman African American history course. She’ll think about the pyramids of ancient Egypt and draw upon them for strength.

“You don’t see a lot of black marine biologists,” Davenport says. “Knowing about my history tells me black girls can do this. It makes you proud to know your people have done something.”

Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or To read her recent work:


Written by Symphony

February 22, 2008 at 10:45 am

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