Previewing the Black and Latino Studies Elective in Connecticut Public Schools

An ancient African king who made a religious pilgrimage accompanied by caravans of gold. An FBI operation spying on members of a movement for Puerto Rican Independence. A Black female cowboy from the 19th century who “broke more noses than any other person in central Montana.”

These are a few of the histories and stories included in the state’s new Black and Latino Studies curriculum.

In 2019, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to require every public high school to offer an elective in Black and Latino history. The new curriculum, which was completed on July 1, will be phased into a limited number of high schools this fall, and will be offered in every school district beginning in the 2022-3 school year.

Although the class will be optional for high schoolers, Paquita Jarman-Smith, the lead developer of the African American Studies portion of the curriculum for the State Education Resource Center, said she expected an enthusiastic response from students.

“We won’t have enough room for them, they will be thrilled,” she told members of the State Academic Standards and Assessment Committee in November.  “Our students are ready for this course.” 

The course begins with Lucy, a human skeleton discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, thought to be the oldest human ever found, and  the early kingdoms of Africa, including Mali, Songhai, Ghana and Egypt.

“This is a time where we can slow down and make it complicated. Complicate that narrative,” said Dexter Gabriel, a professor of History at UConn

Jarman-Smith said her favorite unit was the story of Mansa Musa, the 14th-century ruler of Mali, and his “caravans of gold” that crossed the Sahara Desert.

“That’s what excites me, to see Africa, and to see how ancestors of Africa are continuing to make history,” she said. 

The class then moves examines Triangular Trade and takes a broad look at the institution of slavery, including its importance for the United States’ economy and the role of slave revolts and the abolition movement. 

“Overall, our national discourse and understanding of slavery is lacking,” said Dexter Gabriel, a professor of History at University of Connecticut who specializes in slavery. “I think a lot of it is shrouded in myth.”  

Gabriel, who was one of the consultants on the curriculum, said that students need to learn to look at history “carefully.” 

“Of course we always want to look at the historical past to understand our present,” he said. But Gabriel warned that history needed to be told as a continuum. Taking an event that happened in the 1700s and projecting it onto the present day doesn’t work — historians need to create a throughline that considers all the events that happened from early periods up to the present day. 

“This is a time where we can slow down and make it complicated. Complicate that narrative,” he said.  

Gabriel said he advocated for a telling of history that brings new narratives into the history that students have already learned. 

He brought up the example of Crispus Attucks, a slave who was among the first people to die in the American Revolution when he was killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Gabriel encouraged students to think about his perspective. 

“What is this runaway slave doing in Boston? What is he hearing on the streets?” asked Gabriel. “Who remembers Crispus Attucks? Is it free black communities? Why is that the case, why is he, in some ways, erased from the larger story?” 

Gabriel said that ordinary people are also part of history, and the course materials include stories from a wide range of Black experience, from poets and slave narratives to Black cowboys, the Black Church and African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War and the Spanish American War. It covers Black Wall Street and Historical Black institutions of higher learning, highlights Black scientists and scholars, hip-hop artists and the founders of the Harlem Renaissance

“What is this runaway slave doing in Boston? What is he hearing on the streets?” asked Gabriel. “Who remembers Crispus Attucks? Is it free black communities? Why is that the case, why is he, in some ways, erased from the larger story?” 

The new curriculum also turn its attention to Connecticut, including an audio clipping about Connecticut’s relationship to Juneteenth, a list of Black governors in the state and reading materials about the Amistad Slave Revolt.

The course also reaches into the contemporary era, moving through Jim Crow and Civil Rights to the Black Lives Matter movement.  

Stephen Balkaran, a professor of philosophy at Central Connecticut State University who specializes in the Civil Rights Movement, said that it was important to consider the fight for civil rights not only as a phenomenon of the 1960s, but as a continuum stretching back to the foundation of this country until the present. 

“America is founded in two important documents. These two documents are civil rights and human rights documents,” Balkaran said, speaking of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He said the country has been founded on the principles of human rights, and that different peoples had fought for those rights over time.

According to Balkaran, as important as it is looking back, it’s as important to look forward, for example, at how Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy plays out today.

“In the last four years, we have had more protests by African Americans and other ethnic groups … than Dr. King and his movement,” said Balkaran. “Our struggle is a worldwide struggle.”   

Revolutions and struggles of Latin America

The second half of the course, Latino studies, begins by asking students to consider the idea of race and the variety of words — Hispanic, Latino, Latinx — that people of Latin American, South American or Caribbean descent use to identify themselves. 

The historical portion of the teaching begins with a study of indigenous peoples such as the Tainos, the Mayans, the Nahua and the Inca. 

“There will be a lot of topics here and things they may not have heard about, and this is what we want,” explained Nitza Diaz, a consultant with SERC who led the development of the Latino curriculum. Diaz spoke at the November meeting. 

The course also looks at a variety of Latin American revolutions, beginning with the Haitian Revolution, which Diaz said was a model for other uprisings in Latin America. She said she wanted students to look at models of resistance and “movers and shakers” who upset the status quo, like the Cuban poet Jose Marti whose activism played an important role in Cuban War of Independence against Spain, and Pedro Albizu Campos, a graduate of Harvard Law School who was later imprisoned for his role as a leader of Puerto Rican independence movement. 

“Our students are going to learn about who those heroes were, and what does that have to do with me?” said Diaz. 

The course also covers Puerto Rico and the island’s history after it was annexed by the United States in 1899, after the Spanish-American War. Lessons follow the island’s economic struggles, the migration of Puerto Ricans to Connecticut and the movement for Puerto Rican independence from the United States. 

Nor will the class shy away from conflict — for instance, the 1948 law that made it illegal for Puerto Ricans to fly the island’s flag, or the case of “Las Carpetas” — an extensive project by the FBI to spy on Puerto Ricans involved in independence movements. Course discussions also cover the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the U.S. government’s aid response. 

Parts of a whole

Although the curriculum divides Black and Latino studies into separate semesters, Diaz told CT Examiner that the committee had found ways that the stories intertwined, for example in calls for civil rights during the 1960s by Black and Puerto Rican activists.  

“When they’re talking about the Black Panthers …. that’s a fantastic time to talk about the Young Lords, so that they can see how they were together, how they collaborated with one another and created a really great thing, a really great movement,” said Diaz.

Another shared topic, Diaz said, is the medical establishment’s treatment of Black and Latino people. The curriculum includes experiments on Guatemalan women and Puerto Rican women by American doctors to study the effects of sexually transmitted diseases and birth control. Diaz said that topics like this allow students to reflect on gender and race. 

“When they’re talking about the Black Panthers …. that’s a fantastic time to talk about the Young Lords, so that they can see how they were together, how they collaborated with one another and created a really great thing, a really great movement,” said Diaz.

Asked about criticism that the course was limited to Black and Latino histories and did not include other histories and peoples, Jeremy Bond, a communications manager at SERC, told CT Examiner that the topical focus had been determined by the legislature.

But Balkaran said he agreed with those criticisms. He said that he is trying to create a multicultural course that would incorporate a diverse range of identities including Japanese, Caribbean, Irish, Italian and Jewish. 

“We all have a story to tell. We need to listen to each story,” he said.

Prepare the teachers, diversify the classes

Preparing enough qualified teachers to present material that many have never previously encountered is expected to be a challenge.

In response to a survey of more than 200 Connecticut teachers, 62 percent said they were “ready” to teach the course with professional development and guidance. 

Stephen Armstrong, a social studies consultant with the Connecticut Department of Education, said in the November meeting that professional development means not only getting teachers up-to-speed on the events in history, but also preparing these teachers to lead difficult and potentially uncomfortable discussions about race. 

“Just as important in the professional development, I think, besides content knowledge … is how do you teach, how do you conduct those difficult conversations?” he said.

The SERC team acknowledged that teachers may have to deal with unfamiliar topics, and might consider bringing in guest speakers to help.

“A teacher may not have steeped lived experience or a steep content experience with some of the topics. And so they may need to reach out,” a consultant for SERC, Michelle LeBrun-Griffin, told CT Examiner. 

“The families are going to be challenged by their own youth and young people,” LeBrun-Griffin said. “We’re hoping that everybody can be united in this journey of learning.”

Members of the committee also expressed a desire to curate the classroom environment so that students are drawn from different races, genders and ethnicities — a challenge for districts where students overwhelmingly identify with a single race.  

LeBrun-Griffin suggested that these districts could form intra- or inter- district partnerships with other schools, possibly using virtual learning, so that students can interact with a more diverse group of peers. 

The committee also discussed how to prepare teachers for resistance from parents who disagreed with the course material. LeBrun-Griffin emphasized that it was important for the teachers to have the support of the district and the local community. 

“We are going to speak a lot … about how this teacher should not be the one who is standing the ground, you know, advocating for the course and the content,” she told CT Examiner. “There should be an entire school and district administration and community behind him or her.” 

“The families are going to be challenged by their own youth and young people,” LeBrun-Griffin said. “We’re hoping that everybody can be united in this journey of learning.”

Being the change

The curriculum also is not intended to be confined to the classroom. A number of times, the course materials ask students to translate what they have learned into action. 

As part of this goal, the students are asked to produce two projects by the end of the class. The Be the Change project asks students to create a feasible solution to a problem they see in their own communities, and then partner with local organizations to put the plan into action. 

Students are also asked to complete a creative exhibit or portfolio connecting Black and Latino history with their own identities and experiences. The project, called Radical Imaginations through the Arts, is meant to allow students to express “their own ideas about reimagining new possibilities and justice.” 

“Life for Black people or Latino people did not start in oppression. It started in greatness. So just feeling good about yourself and holding your chest out and saying, Hey, I’m going to pick up this instrument …  I can see myself as a historian. Just [to] open boundless excellence for our scholars.” 

Jarman-Smith told CT Examiner that she hoped the course would let students of color be inspired by their histories.

“Life for Black people or Latino people did not start in oppression. It started in greatness. So just feeling good about yourself and holding your chest out and saying, Hey, I’m going to pick up this instrument …  I can see myself as a historian. Just [to] open boundless excellence for our scholars.” 

Gabriel said that as the students grow older, the knowledge they take from the course could be applied to their daily lives. 

“At the end of the day, I simply want people to be informed,” said Gabriel. “Whether they go on to be activists or dentists — or dentist-activists.”

According to Balkaran, the class is critical to preparing students for the future of America. He said that the U.S. was on track to become a majority-minority country by 2035, and that students needed to learn about diverse perspectives so that they could better understand one another. 

“We must have an education system that prepares students to be global citizens,” Balkaran said. “I think it’s imperative that we understand that change is inevitable. We must not be scared of taking a class. What we must do is embrace it, embrace the ethic change. If we refuse to adapt to change, we fall behind.”


Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Steve Armstrong was a consultant for the state’s Department of Education, not SERC

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