Jamal Ahamad in his classroom at Taconic High School in Pittsfield, where he will be teaching African American Literature this year. Photo: Megan Haley

Pittsfield teacher harnesses the power of what’s happening in America right now to inform his teaching

Last year, Ahamad launched the inaugural African American Studies class at Taconic High School, where his message to students, many of whom are Black or Latinx, was pretty simple: “Let’s just think, let’s just be ourselves — proud and out loud.”

Pittsfield — When Jamal Ahamad started teaching — and he realized the rooms he occupied were always White — it got him thinking hard about what it means to be Black in certain spaces, especially academia. “It froze me up,” he admitted, of having to speak in front of colleagues during faculty meetings or professional development opportunities for fear his way of speaking, or simply being, would not be accepted. Last year, Ahamad launched the inaugural African American Studies class at Taconic High School, where his message to students, many of whom are Black or Latinx, was pretty simple: “Let’s just think, let’s just be ourselves — proud and out loud.” As students across Berkshire County get ready to return to school next month — no matter the model — I got to thinking about the importance, now more than ever, of honest dialogue with young people about the challenges that abound, not the least of which is  simply being a teenager in the age of growing uncertainty. In the first of this two-part story, Ahamad shares openly about what’s on his mind as school starts Monday, Sept. 14, particularly how he hopes to harness the power of what’s happening in America right now — from continued police brutality against Black men to evolving conversations about racism — to inform his teaching.

Hannah Van Sickle: What have you most missed about face-to-face time with students (since March) and no time with students (since June)?

Jamal Ahamad: I just miss my kids — like so much. I miss that atmosphere [that school brings]. I think about all my kids, and those students who I don’t know what’s happening at home — not saying that they come from bad areas, but saying I don’t know if their parents got the time to talk to them when they are busy working and figuring out how they are doing with the pandemic. I miss being able to create an environment where they can all be together, engage in discussion, and just really enjoy each other’s company. As a teenager, the social aspect of [being in] school is probably a little more important than the things they are learning. The people they are going to become is because of the experiences they have in school, not necessarily what they learn in a book. I miss being able to craft that experience for them.

HVS: In the wake of continued trauma for the Black community — most recently the shooting of Jacob Blake — kids are yearning for connection and conversation now more than ever; how do you plan to incorporate this into your classroom/curriculum?

JA: There’s this weird thing that education does, where sometimes — if something is so big — it’s like we’re not going to talk to the kids about it, we’re going to wait for an assembly. Kids are already talking about it; they’re talking about it online, they’re talking about it with each other, and they are formulating their own opinions and coming to their own conclusions. I think it’s important to get in front of that. I came across this article while reading about Frederick Douglass — a narrative that has always rubbed me the wrong way, the fact that it was taught in schools but typically was the only Black voice—and what I realized is that it’s important to know that stuff, because you have to know history. You gotta know that this isn’t new; you gotta know that this has been here, and we’ve been fighting this for a long time, that’s why it’s important to be engaged. At the same time, I have been reading about “vicarious traumatization,” which, with police brutality being filmed now, is that the more of it that we watch, the more harm it can do to us, even though we are not experiencing it [first hand]. This puts us in a really difficult position, Black people and BIPOC, because, you know, police officers are supposed to serve and protect — and I’m not saying that all police officers are bad, I know there are good police officers — but when we get such an abundance of that in the media, it makes it extremely difficult to see them in any other way. So it’s important for me to bring those conversations to the front because I don’t want my students walking around in fear; I want them to know how to advocate for themselves, and to protect themselves. And I want them to feel safe, which is hard right now. So yeah, I’m bringing it to the front to just tell that there’s a balance that they gotta have — you have to be aware of this, but you don’t have to watch it every time because that’s gonna end up killing you inside; and there’s a lot of joy in the world. There’s a lot to celebrate in African American culture, and African American culture and history shouldn’t be reduced to that brutality, but we still have to be aware of it.

HVS: You have spoken previously about the importance of introducing students to narratives — about Black characters and by Black authors — that are not trauma-based; how do you curate what topics you cover?

JA: I wanted to make sure that I present a celebration of Blackness, of African American culture and history, and what I realized — because initially I wanted to just do all the celebration (the music, dance, great literature, film) — but by not talking about those traumas, I was actually sanitizing history. So when I was talking to my curriculum coach about it, what she pointed out to me is that I have some students who may not go to college, or I may have some students who go to college and they don’t study literature or history, so I really have a responsibility to include that stuff even if I don’t want to — because you can’t really reflect on things in an authentic way without including it. So it’s really about balance. The way I’m lining things up is by starting with culture, and how everyone participates in Black culture even if they don’t know it, just because it’s so prominent in American culture. And then, from there, we are going to cover history. After we get through the history, after we talk through some of the hard s— and trauma, we’re going to talk about how it births greatness going forward. So I don’t stay there for too long. But literature is a commentary on history; literature can only be created by an author looking out into the world and giving something back; so when we do that, the references that are in there — the reasons why they write, that’s tucked away into all the joy and celebration that they have, into all that living — we need to understand those things to know how they got there. I just want my kids to know — and anyone who wants to check in on my class — is we’ve been lied to about history, and this isn’t out of nowhere. So we gotta know!

HVS: Ibram X. Kendi has been in the spotlight nonstop since launching Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research in June; how much of his work and his language will permeate your teaching this fall?

JA: While I’m not covering one of Kendi’s books in full this year, [his works] will be at the center of everything that I do, ‘cause they led me to the other things. For example, “Stamped” was adapted by Jason Reynolds; “How to Be an Antiracist,” which challenged me in ways I did not expect, we will do a few chapters from there; what [Kendi] does is talk about racism as a hierarchy that allows every other hierarchy to exist. Classism, sexism, all stem from racism. The thing about Kendi, and why I want to use him, is he’s been committed to this work for a long time; finding out that Kendi wrote “How to Be an Antiracist” while he was battling stage 4 cancer, he said he thought he was going to die and decided to be as honest as possible — for him to live through it, right, is just amazing. No, actually, I don’t think he’s just hot right now, I think he’s been on fire this whole time. The problem is, corporate places [of business] and institutions are flocking to Robin DiAngelo’s work of “White Fragility” instead. So for her to be quoted by Forbes as the most prominent in the antiracist movement right now — but she’s also White and benefits from the systems in place that she is dismantling. And it’s really a paradox for me because Black people have been saying this whole time, “racism isn’t a Black people problem, it’s a White people problem.” So now you got this White academic who comes in, and she’s doing the work, and profiting so much from it, that I just think there are White people out there who are reading that book and stopping, not knowing that BIPOC people have been commenting on this forever, but they have been rejected the whole time as being seen as angry or delusional or — you know — just making that stuff up. I think that [Kendi’s] work is essential, without discounting “White Fragility” — I’m actually reading it now and it’s really good — but as a Black person who has gone through this world, “White Fragility” feels like kid gloves — a little too soft to address racism when reflecting my experiences — but I understand it was written by a white author for white audiences. As [a colleague of mine said] it’s like the door to the house, you have to use it to get in. Then you should explore what else is in there once you are there.  So I am going to be using a lot of Kendi . . . and we are going to be using it as a way to examine the literature that is in front of us.

HVS: In what tangible ways have you seen students, particularly Black and LatinX, benefitting from the introduction of African American Studies at Taconic?

JA: My class was billed as an intensive class (falling beneath honors and AP), and I had a number of Black honors and AP students who [worried that taking an intensive class wouldn’t look so good on their transcripts]. I knew I would still reach kids. I did have a few AP kids take my class, and they were Black girls, and when they took my class they said, “Man, Mr. Ahamad, I just got to tell you to be able to be in this room and not have to code-switch, to be able to let my hair down and talk like I want to and get my points across, even if it’s a little messy, it’s just so freeing. I know this is something our principal is working on — as one of his key goals — he wants whoever wants to take AP classes to be able to take them, but right now, it’s predominantly White. So you put Black kids in those classes, and they got to tiptoe around things just to — they gotta code-switch! Code-switching is this idea that when you are in different spaces and around different people, that you have to adjust your language and, by extension, your behavior. So it’s kind of like if I’m Black, the way that I communicate with people within my neighborhood, with people in my home, is very organic and authentic. But when I come to school, because now I am around more White people, more authority figures, adults, I can’t speak like that anymore. I can’t say words like “yo,” I can’t say “ain’t,” can’t say the n-word — you know, or at least I’m not supposed to anyway. So there’s this natural language, this familiarity, that Black people have among one another when speaking with one another. But you have to switch up the whole thing — speak more academic, speak more mainstream, etc. — [when you get to school]. The more you code-switch, the more you trade yourself in, because language really boils down to, like, who a person is and their culture is an extension of that. Language is then amplified by their behaviors and their mannerisms and their gestures, so if I have to change all that up, what I’m really doing is assimilating — and assimilating, based on everything we are seeing now with abolitionist teaching, is actually colonizing. If I say you need to be this way, you need to speak this way, when you are here in this space, you are disregarding what this kid is and where they are from. You’re saying that you don’t want to see that [authentic behavior], what you would rather see instead that they become more like you, which is painful, to be a kid, because you don’t feel respected, you don’t feel seen. And teenagers just want to be seen and heard.  And now you’ve taken that away from them. For me, in my class, it was more so about me moving the needle towards them just being their authentic selves, and expressing themselves in that way. To me, it’s more important that they get their ideas out and understand their thinking and what they feel about a certain thing than how they say it. What’s difficult is that — when they get to college, when they get to the next classroom, when they get to their job — I’m not too sure someone else is going to do that for them. So they still need to know how to code-switch, but I’m gonna do my best to not enforce it as much, as it’s important to me that they get to be themselves — and when you free that up, it’s easier to learn.

HVS: What is one of the things on this year’s curriculum you are most eager to bring to students?

JA: There’s this book called “Not So Pure and Simple” by Lamar Giles, it’s going to be my very last unit, and it’s about toxic masculinity. All of the characters in the book are Black, but none of the characters does anything because they are Black, so that’s really important, one. Two, as we are looking at all these movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement, and you look at how Say Her Name is a movement in itself, why do we even need that? That raises a lot of questions. Men don’t always treat women right, and especially in high school when they start dating and they are navigating those worlds, they make a lot of mistakes. And I feel like I want to be able to put a text in front of them that keeps things in the text so they can have this conversation. When I found out that something like one in four girls is sexually assaulted, in school, and they don’t say anything. Twenty-five percent of girls are sexually assaulted and, chances are, by someone they know? It’s ridiculous. And I don’t want any of my students to either go through high school or to get to college, and think that they are doing something right when they are causing harm to someone else. I really want to break those cycles of the patriarchy, I guess, so that’s my most exciting book. Especially when you look at Black culture, Black mainstream culture, it’s very misogynistic. And I just want to tackle that head on, and I think it will be really important for my students to see a Black man talking about that, you know? That’s my most exciting text. We gotta talk about that; we can’t have kids out here, you know, [either] doing the wrong things in their relationships [or] not knowing how to advocate for themselves.

HVS: You’ve got the next generation as your captive audience for 170 days this year; what do you hope to accomplish in your work together?

JA: I just want [my students] to dream, period. There are a lot of kids that I talk to who don’t even know what they are into, or don’t know what they like because they haven’t been exposed to anything. Part of that is that Berkshire County is so [vast]; there is so much to do, but it’s so spread out that if you don’t have transportation, it’s tough. I just want to expose them to different things so they can feel OK about dreaming and wanting to aim for something. Things that I really want them to learn is just to be kind and to be humble. You are not always right, and whether or not you disagree with someone, chances are they have something to say that is worth thinking about. This will either help you to question your own beliefs, or strengthen them, to move forward. And I want to move from tolerance to respect — tolerance is not it. I don’t think we have to agree with everything someone says or does, but we should be able to respect their decisions and understand. That’s what I want to work towards.