By Aswad Walker
Houston is considered the most diverse city in the nation. Moreover, HISD, the area’s largest school district, is roughly 89% students of color (61.7% Hispanic/Latinx, 22.4% Black, 9.9% white and 4.4% Asian or Asian Pacific Islander, with 1.4% of students claiming two or more races).
Yet, a recent decision by the Texas State Board of Education to nix adding Black and Latinx Studies to the social studies curriculum (and not revisit the issue until 2025) while keeping in problematic and erroneous information promoted by right-wing evangelicals is seen by many as a move to preserve a 1950s-style Eurocentric education model that ignores diverse historical contributions as well as current and future state demographics.
However, efforts to make sure students in the Greater Houston area have access to Black and Latinx history are moving forward to bridge the information gap and push school districts to advocate for and enact pro-diversity and inclusion lessons for their students.
Local educator, LJ Garfield is among the individuals who refuse to allow the ruling of the 15-member SBOE (10 whites, two Blacks and three Latinx) to dissuade her from being a crusader for “Our Story.”
The Defender spoke with Garfield about efforts to deliver Black and Latinx history to area students in spite of the SBOE decision.
DEFENDER: What were your initial thoughts when you heard the SBOE decision?
LJ GARFIELD: Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised. There has been resistance to getting the Black story told in this country for a very long time. But we will pursue and continue to press on because it’s necessary for not just Black people, but for everyone to know how Black folks contributed to the success of this country and to the world. They try to weaponize “critical race theory,” and Latino Studies is not “critical race theory.” But they kind of group it all together because anything that’s not a Eurocentric history seems to be a threat. But it’s not a threat. It’s just giving the information that’s already out there and letting others be exposed to it so they can have a better and deeper understanding of how African Americans have supported this country and the global community.
DEFENDER: Why are Black and Latinx Studies important for students of all races?
GARFIELD: Because in America, we’re supposed to be the “home of the brave and the land of the free” and the melting pot and all of that. This is where you’re putting some action behind the words. Sometimes, there seem to be empty promises about what America is and what we can do. And now here’s the opportunity to say, “Hey, we do recognize there are people here other than those of European descent. We do recognize that these cultures contributed to the success of the country. We do recognize that they have a standing in the global community.” When you don’t do that, it’s shameful. It’s also a little hypocritical. The word is gonna get out anyway. You can deny the history now. You can hide it and you can try to keep people from it. But eventually, everything in the dark comes to light. So, since we know it’s gonna come to the light anyway, you might as well do it on your own terms in a dignified manner instead of all this pushback about our story. Because we’re gonna tell our story one way or another.
DEFENDER: Can you give an update on the initiative you’re part of to teach Texas high schoolers Black and Latinx history?
Speaker 2: I work with a couple of different groups. The Herman Park Rotary Club is where I first got my introduction to helping with the African American History curriculum. They were pulling educators from all the different K-12 sectors who were familiar with writing curricula. So, even though I’m not a history teacher, I teach health science, I do write curriculum and I am a Black woman. And I follow current events. They wanted a lot of different perspectives and we were putting together a curriculum that could be used in the K-12 sector, for African American studies. The committee I was on was specifically for high school. We’ve been working on this for the last two years. I first heard about the state’s 2018 approval. Then it was supposed to be rolled out for the 2019 – 2020 school year. But a lot of schools didn’t roll it out and they were saying they couldn’t roll it out because they didn’t have a curriculum. So that’s where the committee came from with Herman Park Rotary Club. And most people know the Rotary Club is all about activism and education and information. And that’s why I was working with them.
DEFENDER: What about the 2018 SBOE ruling approving African American Studies classes in state high schools?
GARFIELD: Unfortunately, I know personally that HISD has some curriculum there and Conroe has some curriculum. Those are the ones that I know of. I’m hoping that there is more, and word just hasn’t reached me yet. But there’s been a lot of resistance. It’s been a lot of resistance to getting the information into the schools. And again, when House Bill 3979 (the Texas bill limiting the non-existent “critical race theory”) was passed that said that we can’t teach anything about racism or oppression or any of that, making people feel guilty, the purpose of the history wasn’t to make people feel guilty. It’s just to tell the story. How you feel about it is an individual experience. But the information should be available to everyone who wants to learn about it because it gives a broader perspective. That’s why we’ve been working on it. And we are diligent in working on a task force and different advisory boards are being crafted and curated so that we can have experts in curriculum, experts in history, experts in all the different realms to be able to help and assist with making sure that our children and every child in America has access to it.
DEFENDER: Are there any plans to teach “Our Story” in other venues?
GARFIELD: Absolutely. Community centers like SEHAH and SHAPE and the Shrine of the Black Madonna have the courses, but we are also creating clubs. So, if we can’t teach it in the classroom, we’re gonna teach it in the clubs. The clubs are not ethnic studies clubs. Each club has its own name based on the campus. But the purpose of the club is to bring the information to the students and then bring the information to the parents through their students. Then hopefully the parents can approach the school and the district with getting the curriculum available for the students.
DEFENDER: So, these clubs already exist?
GARFIELD: Absolutely. I am a sponsor for one of the clubs. It’s called Melanation. It’s at the high school where I teach. It’s about any Black or Brown people who want to have their story told and access to their history. For example, during Hispanic Heritage Month, we did projects on Hispanic excellence. All my students made PowerPoints on the different Hispanic contributions to American success, and we presented them to the school. It’s just a matter of having some access to the people who look like you and the contributions that they made. I was surprised how many contributions from Hispanic Americans that I wasn’t aware of and my students weren’t aware of and their parents weren’t aware of. But it’s common knowledge if you look it up. So. what we are trying to do is make sure that you have access to the knowledge even if you can’t get it in class.
DEFENDER: Are there any other such clubs at any other schools?
GARFIELD: Yes. There are roughly four in various school districts in the Greater Houston area. I wanna let everybody tell their own story because some teachers are a little bit reserved about that. We are taking a different approach because we don’t wanna get shut down, but I’m not as reserved as some other teachers.
DEFENDER: How can interested parents and students learn more?
GARFIELD: They can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to the Herman Park Rotary Club. They definitely have contacts within the community in the different school districts that can help you. You can also reach out to the Texas Center for African American Living History (via Facebook). That’s with Naomi Carrier. She is one of the historians that is working on a project with the Herman Park Rotary Club.
DEFENDER: What opened you to being interested in and passionate about our history?
GARFIELD: My mom raised me to be a confident woman, and part of that confidence was her instilling in me what the accomplishments of my grandparents were and my great-grandparents. As we tried to go back, we realized that we didn’t have certain records because we were descendants of slaves. When you’re descendants of slaves, you’re sold and your records are distorted or lost or destroyed or whatever. So, it was hard for us to go back several generations. And then this DNA test came along. DNA testing gave us more identity and we were able to find some of our relatives. And I traced my family heritage all the way back to Ghana. Then I went to Ghana and I went to the village where my DNA says that my maternal ancestors are from. And it was such an empowering experience for me; an eye-opener. And I want everybody to have that opportunity. And while I understand not every Black person wants to have that deep dive, I do think it is necessary for our history to be available should they want to. And that’s why I’m involved in this project.