Recently, Hopkins has taken several opportunities to talk about race in and out of the classroom: frst, two assemblies on Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month, and second, the start of the new, second-term English and history joint class “The Humanities Symposium: African-American Literature and History.”
First, on January 19, 2018, Students United for Racial Equity (S.U.R.E.) and the Diversity Board held an assembly honoring Martin Luther King. In it, Liz Bamgboye ’20 wrote a speech on civil disobedience and performed it. “My inspiration is sort of hard to grasp but once I get it, it just all starts flowing,” she said. “I was looking online, at his works, and I found ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ and I was reading it and fnding how much it applies to today.” Bamgboye explained how she wanted to capture the spirit and message of Dr. King’s words, but at the same time put his message in a modern context. She said that her favorite line is, “If you put justice on the backburner and make order your priority/You side with the oppressor and push down the minority.” Bamgboye said, “I feel that it is the most powerful line. It speaks to my message. Too many times, people tend to fear change because they see it as the disruption of order. To them, it’s not “civil” enough. But in the protection of this idea, they ignore the experiences of those crying out for change and invalidate their voices. This gives the oppressor more power. Change does not come with moderation. Now more than ever, it is deadly to be lukewarm.”
While Bamgboye honored Dr. King with her own inspirational words, Ranease Brown recited his famous “I Have a Dream” speech for the Assembly from memory; however, her efforts began months before. Brown participates in the “Martin Luther King Jr.” contest every year, which is done by her church. She explained “I started in November and it took a month to memorize, and I was polishing it through December. You get money if you win, but it’s really not about that. It’s about honoring Dr. King.” Brown made it through the preliminary round, and will perform her recitations of the speech in the next rounds of the competition. The Assembly also featured a song performed by Kaila Spearman ’21 and Brown, and a S.U.R.E. presentation put on by Gigi Speer ’18, Lionel Louis ’18, Elena Brennan ’20, Helena Lyng-Olsen ’18, Gunnar DeSantis ’20, and Jasmine Simmons ’21.
The Hopkins curriculum has also implemented a class to include race in the classroom. The frst section of the new Term II Humanities Symposium course has begun, studying African-American history and literature from slavery to current racial issues. There is currently one section of the course, which meets for two blocks. The frst block is taught by history teacher and cofounder of the course, Daniel Levy, and focuses on the historical events. The other block, taught by the course’s other designer, Penny Ratcliffe, focuses on literature related to the historical events they are studying. Unlike any other course at Hopkins, the Humanities Symposium has the unique opportunity to work for two consecutive hours on most days that they meet. “This allows us to deeply discuss topics, unlike many other classes, and complicate the narrative,” added Levy.
“The idea for the course frst stemmed from my frustration with the ‘Conversation on Race’ program from the 2015-2016 school year because it felt like an artifcial add-on,” explained Ratcliffe. “I proposed a HILL [Hopkins Institute of Lifelong Learning] workshop about conversations on race in the curriculum. Although there are already some places, especially in English and History, where this could easily happen, it seemed like creating a course focusing on African-American history would be the perfect way to create an interdisciplinary course and bring those conversations into the classroom.”
Levy had taught an African-American history course at his previous teaching job, “so the partnership made perfect sense,” added Ratcliffe. According to Levy, the goals of the course are “for the students in the class to discover how the attempted dehumanization of a people happened, how it was resisted, and what this mean in terms of the systemic racism that remains afterwards.” Karyn Bartosic ’18, one of the seventeen students taking the class, said that she was motivated to sign up for the course because “it combines two subjects I love while looking into a fascinating and pertinent topic of American history that is not explored deeply in other History and English courses at Hopkins.”
Although Hopkins often makes efforts to talk about race as a community, teachers and students, alike, recognize that there is always room for improvement. Many teachers, such as Levy and Ratcliffe hope that other courses like the Humanities Symposium will be added to the curriculum. “Ideally, we’d like to see more than one section of the current course, as well as other opportunities to talk about different marginalized voices, such as Native-Americans and women,” said Ratcliffe, “and we also hope to bring some of the things we’re doing with the students to the rest of the school community.”
Both Brown and Bamgboye emphasized the success of the MLK Assembly at Hopkins, and acknowledged the efforts of SURE, but believe there is still more that can be done. “Sometimes I feel that black history is contained to Black History Month and MLK Day, and I appreciate these assemblies because they do offer a platform for people to learn about it, but I do feel like it could be integrated more into the curriculum and not just MLK day, so that it isn’t put onto the sidelines for the entire year,” said Bamgboye. Brown agreed and added, “Black History Month and MLK day, Hopkins does really well with. Especially the heritage day we have, that part is good. One area that needs improvement is [conversations on] diversity as a whole, and not so much just African American history, but other cultures that are less represented too.”
Looking to the future, the Diverity Board has a detailed agenda. In terms of talking about race outside of the classroom, Brown said, “It really comes down to educating people more, and SURE and the Diversity Board have been working hard to make that happen.” Elena Brennan, one of the heads of SURE and a member of the Diversity Board, added “The Black History Month Assembly and a joint meeting with the other civil justice clubs on campus, such as Sexuality and Gender Advocates (S.A.G.A.) and Equal Rights, Respect, and Opportunities (E.R.R.O.), are just a few of the things SURE has planned for February.” Brennan added that “Hopkins is often compared to a bubble, and in order to combat this stigma and burst the ‘bubble’ we all need to make time to keep up with current events and to be aware of the racially triggered incidents that occur throughout the nation everyday.” Although many efforts have been made to enhance the way the Hopkins community talks about race, Ratcliffe emphasized that this is “a small step on a very long road, but we have to start somewhere.”