North Eugene High School’s curriculum has gained attention recently regarding the music by rapper Kendrick Lamar not being included this year, prompting questions from some people in the community about whether 4J’s curriculum is culturally relevant and inclusive of Black students’ experiences.
Lamar’s album “DAMN.” won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for storytelling that reflected the complex experience of Black life in America. He also has won 13 Grammy Awards and been nominated 37 times. Teachers proposed a unit on Lamar, but were unable to teach it this school year because it has not gone through the district’s review process, district spokesperson Kerry Delf said.
The concerns around the curriculum, first reported by Eugene Weekly, have prompted protests, comments from then-school board candidate Maya Rabasa and personal essays about racism. It also has opened up a broader conversation about what it means to teach Black history and culture.
Eric Richardson, executive director of the Eugene/Springfield NAACP, said it puts a focus on the lack of curriculum that studies the true classic nature and experiences of Black people.
“Kendrick Lamar and his work is part of that,” he told The Register-Guard on Friday, “but I think that we do a disservice when we go to the most recent person to get accolades and forget the great wealth of knowledge and resources that are available, and even … at the schools in the library. There are many books that go unused that the teachers themselves aren’t using.”
Delf said Lamar’s music was never officially part of the curriculum this year, though teachers proposed it, so comments of his work being pulled from the curriculum are a “mischaracterization.”
“Some teachers proposed this year to add a unit of study featuring works by Kendrick Lamar, but did so just before the unit would have begun. The proposed materials included many works containing repeated uses of a racial epithet,” she wrote in an email. “The addition of this unit … was proposed too late to complete a thoughtful and inclusive curriculum approval process and reach consensus about which works might be selected to enrich the curriculum this school year, but it remains under consideration for next school year.”
Delf said new curriculum, “including when it involves controversial material such as racial epithets,” needs to go through a “thoughtful and inclusive curriculum approval process—including communication with families and community partners, and applying an equity lens regarding the potential impacts, both positive and negative, it may have for equity and for all students and families.”
Nona Joy Solomon-Burt is a 16-year-old student at North Eugene who has been actively involved in the local Black Lives Matter movement organizing and attending protests regularly for the past year. In a conversation with The Register-Guard about overall steps toward anti-racism in schools, Solomon-Burt brought up frustrations with Lamar’s work not being included in the curriculum.
“That was really big for me because I felt it was unfair that they took out such a big part of what my generation listens to, and it really just kind of made me see what side people are (on),” she said. “Obviously they support Black Lives Matter, but it’s like, do they really support Black Lives Matter if they’re like taking out essential curriculum?”
When Solomon-Burt found out Lamar would not be part of the curriculum like she hoped, she said she sent multiple emails, including to the principal and people in the community to help her push back.
“I wanted people to know that Eugene still has so much work to do when it comes to antiracism,” she said.
The district is still considering Lamar’s work for next school year, Delf said, and is vetting existing curriculum and clarifying the approval process for teachers and administrators.
“It’s our goal to ensure our schools provide culturally relevant instruction maintaining a high level of rigor and relevance, so students see themselves reflected in the curriculum and maintaining safety for our students,” she said.
But even just adding Lamar’s work, or the work of any one artist, would not be enough, said NAACP’s Richardson, who spoke on this issue at a recent meeting of the 4J Equity Committee.
“I think what we’re talking about is really a lack of curriculum that studies the true classic nature of Black people and our ongoing contributions to civilization, history, literature, culture, art, sports,” he told The Register-Guard on Friday.
He’s not coming at it from a side of negativity against Lamar’s work, he said, but instead from a pro-African studies and Black studies lens. He thinks there should be more in-depth planning of curriculum about Black identity and scholarship.
“We are definitely way behind where we should be, and the fact that a teacher looks to Kendrick Lamar and (popular culture) to give the lessons shows the lack of curriculum and lack of support coming from the district and state around curriculum, because we just have to make it up,” he said.
“There’s so much to do, that I think that getting sidetracked on this issue is a disservice to the great task at hand — but that’s not taking anything away from the attempts to give identity and agency to Black kids and to Black culture.”