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AFRC 1187: The History of People of African Descent is taught at Claudia Cohen Hall. Credit: Max Mester

“A transformative experience” is how students describe one Africana Studies class that explores Black history, culture and life at Penn and beyond.

AFRC 1187: “The History of People of African Descent at the University of Pennsylvania” focuses on the stories of Black individuals on campus and around the world, drawing on University texts and archival records. Professors and students currently enrolled spoke with The Daily Pennsylvanian about how the course impacted their experience at Penn. 

The class is co-taught by 2000 College graduate and University Chaplain Rev. Charles Howard and 1998 Wharton graduate and Director of Penn Spectrum Programs & Shared Interest Groups Daina Richie-Troy. Students visit the Penn Archives, conduct interviews, and hear from guest speakers to imagine what the University was like at different points in history, according to Brian Peterson, the director of Makuu: The Black Cultural Center. 

Peterson wrote in a statement to the DP that Howard brought the idea for the class to him 15 years ago. He originally co-taught the class with Howard, and Richie-Troy joined as a teaching assistant and later a co-teacher. 

“[AFRC 1187] helps students think more critically about their current Penn experience and what they want to see,” Peterson wrote. “It’s brought together students of all backgrounds, and has created opportunities to think about other seminars and ideas to reach other communities.” 

Richie-Troy became involved in the class after attending a few sessions with students she knew in her former role as associate director of Makuu. She said that Howard and Peterson taught Penn's Black history in a way she had “never been introduced to before.”

“The way the class is framed is finding people who have been involved and walked the halls [of Penn] from the beginning, but also talking about where society was at the time,” Richie-Troy said in an interview.

College senior Taussia Boadi, who is currently taking AFRC 1187, said that the course has been on her list of classes to take while at Penn since before her first year.

“I'm learning about my people and being taught by my people,” Boadi said. “I think that's really important because in history in high school, I was being taught about Black people by white people. And they will never be able to fully articulate the true experiences.”  

Lynn Larabi, a senior in the College, took the class during the spring of her first year. She described the class as “a working and interactive archive” of Penn stories. 

Students in the class are able to explore a wide range of topics. In past classes, students have compiled guides to Penn that talk about elements of Black life that “may not be in a brochure,” according to Richie-Troy. Previous students have explored questions like “Where's your favorite place to get a Jamaican patty? Where do you get your haircut? If you want to go to a drum circle, where do you go?”

When she took the class, Larabi was able to look into the founding of predominantly Black student groups on campus that she belongs to, including The Inspiration Acapella and senior honor society Onyx.

She is currently the class’s TA for the second time, and told the DP that she returned to this course because “there's always something new [to learn].”

“We’ve had these really great narratives told over time about what it's like to be in different pockets at Penn,” she added.

Boadi explained that the class has helped her reflect on her experience at Penn more holistically, informing her independent study project. 

“Coming into Penn, I really hated my natural hair. I felt as though it wasn't professional enough, and I felt as though I wouldn't be taken seriously,” Boadi said. “I'm a Black woman and I didn't want to stand out more in this space that wasn't made for me.”

“As I entered my sophomore and junior year, I was like, whoa, like, [I] actually really love my hair. Why have I been trying to hide it?” she continued. 

Her project, titled “Strandscendence: A Historical Odyssey of Black Hair Narratives and Campus Resilience,” explores the development of people's relationship with their hair in college, specifically at a predominantly white institution.

College senior Tarah Paul used her project to research 1985 College graduate and former chairman of Penn’s Black Student League Dr. Dwayne Everett.

In collaboration with a classmate, Paul searched the Penn archives for information on Everett. While Everett’s name often appeared in old DP articles, they struggled to find information on him until coming across him in an old yearbook.

Paul said that she and her classmate aimed to honor Everett, which made the project enjoyable. Everett eventually visited the class on their invitation and told stories from his time at Penn. 

Paul added that the course partly contributed to the 2022 revival of a Black student publication at Penn, Faces of Black Penn, of which she is co-editor. She explained that The Vision Newspaper, which was the focus of a project by students in AFRC 1187, served as an inspiration for the new magazine. 

“Because I'm able to honor the Black population at Penn, I'm also able to look around and say who was accounted for and who isn't accounted for," Richie-Troy said about the class.

Boadi said that the class has been a way to learn more about the history of the University she attends, understanding where she comes from and "where we should be going."

For Larabi, AFRC 1187 was a place for “thinking critically about what it means to be at Penn and what your impact as a student can look like.”

Richie-Troy explained that, initially, most of the students enrolled in the class were Black undergraduate students, but as more students heard about the class, it became more diverse. Graduate students and alumni have also historically been able to audit the class, which Richie-Troy said has introduced them to “an element of Penn that they didn't get while they were here.” 

Paul said that taking AFRC 1187 was a “transformative experience," and the focus on Black Penn alumni introduced her to new stories she would never been aware of.

Boadi encouraged more students to take AFRC 1187, explaining that it “provides the necessary history that we need to appreciate the people who walk around this campus.”

“This is a class for everyone. It's a class to learn, and to share, and to understand, and to listen and gain empathy, which is something I think we lack a lot at Penn,” she said. 

AFRC 1187 is offered every spring.