Schenectady County

Center connects kids with art and their African roots

Woven into every class at Hamilton Hill Arts Center is a secret ingredient: history.
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Woven into every class at Hamilton Hill Arts Center is a secret ingredient: history.

Teachers pull out a map of Africa to explain where each drum song comes from. A sculpture lesson includes an impromptu discussion of the vast African trading network, which stretched to Asia a thousand years ago.

It’s those moments, not the arts lessons, that make the center truly valuable, alumni said this week as they gathered to help celebrate Hamilton Hill Arts’ 40th anniversary.

They complained that local schools focus on dead white men, primarily from Western Europe or the United States, leaving young blacks to draw their role models from rappers who flash gang signs on MTV.

“Our history isn’t BET or Slim Thug. Martin Luther King is great but there’s more,” said Michael Rhodes, 23, a Niskayuna resident who came to the arts center as a teenager to learn African drumming and is now a songwriter for an independent record label.

Even though he got his start at the arts center, what he remembers most is not the music lessons.

“Some mornings we’d get here early, order pizza and talk black history,” he said. “They’d get out a map of Africa and they’d show us a rhythm or a dance we did is from here. I hadn’t heard of any of these places in school. It definitely helped me with things I wasn’t being taught in the schools.”

Arts center Executive Director Miki Conn said the subtle history education is an intentional, essential facet of the arts program.

Even a brief mention of black accomplishments — like the fact that a black man invented the dustpan-broom combination — gets a big reaction from her students.

“Kids are amazed when you say, ‘Well, a black man invented that,’ ” Conn said. “To a broader world, perhaps it doesn’t matter what the race of the inventor was, but if the message you receive is that we as a people are incapable, it’s exciting to learn that’s not true. And that means the children sitting here can accomplish amazing things too.”

The arts center is located on Schenectady Street in the heart of Hamilton Hill, where roughly half of the residents are black. Almost every student at the center is black.

“The thing they struggle with is they don’t know the positive things that are their roots,” Conn said. “That’s the things they don’t learn in public school. We believe as they learn those things they become more confident, grounded in their roots.”

CRITICAL LESSONS

Those lessons are still with alumni who long ago gave up their artistic aspirations.

Jody Lyons, 41, who danced in the center’s troupe as a child, now uses the center’s other lessons in her church ministry at People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse.

“I always talk about my heritage and who paved the way before me,” she said. “The center has shaped my life. It gave me a piece of heritage, of who I am. An African-American person could come here and learn who your ancestors are and how much we contribute to the world. You didn’t get that in textbooks in school.”

Without an understanding of black accomplishments, she said, she would have judged her race — and herself — by the blacks she met on Hamilton Hill.

“I think we would have been a little more closed-minded. We would have been stuck in our few blocks,” she said. “It broadens us to not just be limited to our area, our little circle of life.”

Carmella Parente, social studies coordinator for the Schenectady City School District, agrees that children of any minority group benefit from learning about positive role models in their group’s history.

But, she said, there’s just not enough time in the school day to offer the details that Conn fits into her arts classes.

In third grade, students are first exposed to other countries in a “communities around the world” section of social studies.

TESTS RULE

“But the focus of three to eight testing is on ELA and math,” she said. “With the ELA test, how many communities around the world are they really going to get to?”

The next opportunity is sixth grade, but Africa is lumped in with the entire “Eastern hemisphere,” which includes China.

“You have to get through every early civilization, the stone age, the middle ages, the reformation, World War I and World War II,” Parente said. “You look at that poor sixth grade teacher!”

Students focus on American history in seventh and eighth grades, then take another whirlwind tour around the world in ninth and 10th grades.

“Even if a teacher is really great with African history, had it as a minor or a major, they can’t devote a month-long project on it,” Parente said. “They have to get to the current problems in Africa, in Asia, because there could be an essay on that.”

The focus, she said, is always on the end-of-year state test.

“As a woman I’d have loved to spend more time on women’s rights, but the likelihood of that being on the test — you want to give the kids the best possible change to reach a level 4 [the highest grade],” she said. “To do that, the teachers of social studies feel they have to move on, move on. The dead men — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln — do drive it.”

The test will never ask students about the first black woman pilot, she explained.

“Our teachers do talk about Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, the Black Panthers … they will get to these people because the reformers prior to the Civil War are often questions on the assessment,” she said.

If the teachers didn’t have to worry about a state test, there would still be too much to cover everything in depth, she said.

“The difference is, if there wasn’t a test, teachers could look to kids’ interests,” she said.

Until that happens, the arts center will fill in the gaps.

Categories: Schenectady County

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