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Untold Black & Latinx History Surfaces

Alyssa Washington couldn’t stop thinking about the multi-colored map of New Haven on her classroom wall: the narrow green around Prospect Hill and Westville; the swathed yellow, like a waning moon, from Beaver Hills to City Point; the foreboding red around Dixwell and Fair Haven — each section of the city walled in by fixed black lines.

The Metropolitan Business Academy student was looking over a mid-1930s assessment of the credit-worthiness of each New Haven neighborhood, in which the government-backed Home Owners’ Loan Corporation deemed areas with more ethnic minorities “hazardous.”

The map of New Haven’s “redlining” was just one of the 34 picture print-outs covering the walls of Metro’s Room 204 on Thursday morning, all giving different views of America’s borders, for social-studies teacher Nataliya Braginsky’s new class on African-American & Latinx History.

“These are things we haven’t learned at all in middle school or high school. These are the things behind the screen,” said Ana Velez, a Metro student in the class. “It shows us the real truth in where we live, that we should have knowledge of, but that a lot of teachers don’t have the time to teach us because they’re not expected to.”

Students across the entire state could soon be signing up for a similar class. Prodded on by testimony from New Haven high-schoolers with Students for Educational Justice, state legislators passed a law that will eventually require every high school to offer an elective on African-American and Puerto Rican studies.

Local activists have been pushing for a “culturally affirming curriculum” throughout city schools. They want lessons that are more relevant for its diverse student body, that don’t leave out so much history, as one Latina student recently told the Board of Education.

Metro students said their middle-school classes had covered the same topics ad nauseam: the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, they rattled off.

“I’ve learned the same thing over and over again. I know this already. Please tell me more; go in depth,” said Elana Fletcher. “I think [the teachers] only tell the textbook part, because that’s all they’ve been taught. They don’t really know the real truth.”

Nyasia Rivera said she didn’t know why teachers avoided the difficult realities of America’s past, especially since there’s not the same reticence to talk candidly about how the Nazis systematically killed millions in the Holocaust. She called that “super hypocritical.”

Amarion Coleman said he even felt like he’d been told “a lot of lies.”

“We looked at George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus. We were told they started America, when in reality there were all these indigenous people already here and they took their land,” added Kaleah Ramos. “They claimed it as something it wasn’t.”

But Metro is getting a head start on changing that with Braginsky’s class — one that could eventually be a model for even wider changes in how history is taught in New Haven.

“Honestly, I believe — and I think the administration here agrees — that this course should’ve existed here and in other schools long ago,” she said. “Seeing students, some of whom were from Metro, fighting for this [at the capitol] made it very clear that it was necessary. Even though the legislation doesn’t go into effect until 2022, we decided, Why wait?”

This past Thursday, about 40 Metro students in two sections got a chance to do that, as Braginsky opened up a new unit on “moving borders” with a brief lecture about a century of American immigration history, a lesson that had particular resonance in Donald Trump’s America, where a Wilbur Cross student is facing deportation.

She talked about the wars in the mid-1800s that initially grabbed territory from Mexico and reintroduced slavery in what’s now Texas, connecting African-American and Latinx histories.

What did the border look like back then? Braginsky asked.

“A big brick wall.”

“People trying to cross it.”

Coleman finally got it right: “An imaginary line.”

Braginsky showed them a magazine article from 1909 talking about drivers taking “joyrides” into Mexico and only knowing they’d crossed the boundary when the roads started to wind.

But that border firmed up after World War I, Braginsky went on, as the federal government formalized its immigration policies, especially with the Undesirable Aliens Act of 1929.

Over the next decades, it alternated between invitations in and repatriations out, depending on how the economy was doing, she said. Sometimes those even overlapped: Amid labor shortages on farms the 1950s, the bracero program allowed Mexican immigrants in at the same time “Operation Wetback” was deporting Mexican immigrants out, she said.

“This country’s disgusting,” Washington said. “It’s a shame to be from here; I’m being honest.”

“I hear you,” Braginsky said, pausing. “Well, it’s important that we know the history, the shameful history because that’s the only way that we’re going to be able to change it moving forward. We need to know the past to know where we’re going, right? We can go in a different direction.”

“Definitely, so it doesn’t repeat again,” Washington said.

Then, students walked around to look at the pictures Braginsky had taped to the walls with paragraph-long descriptions. They left Post-It note reactions and replies to each other, like an analog Instagram.

There were cartoons, photographs, poems and articles. There were Jacob Lawrence paintings, gerrymandered maps of Wisconsin’s legislative districts and Hooker’s attendance zones, pictures of fences dividing Arizona from Sonora and Hamden from New Haven.

Braginsky asked them to talk in small groups about how they felt about the images.

Washington said she felt disturbed by the redlined map. “That’s crazy how they did that,” to write off entire neighborhoods based on the skin color of their inhabitants, she said. “The audacity the government had.”

“It didn’t just happen in New Haven. In a lot, if not all, major cities, the government created these classifications,” Braginsky said. “It really impacted neighborhoods. They couldn’t get loans or insurance. They weren’t able to sell their homes for profit, so they didn’t have the same wealth as these white families.”

At the end of the hour-long period, Braginsky asked students to answer two “core questions.” She does that every class, to get a sense of whether students understood the content without the pressure of a quiz and to give them a chance to share their reactions to what they’ve just learned.

This time, she asked: “How have borders been used as a tool of oppression and discrimination? And how is crossing them an act of survival and liberation?”

Folded into those questions is the guiding premise behind Braginsky’s entire curriculum: For as long as there has been repression, she points out in each lesson, there has also been resistance.

“There always has been a response,” Braginsky said. Throughout, she said she’s trying to find a balance between talking about “white supremacy and racism” and “Black and Latinx joy and beauty and power.”

Metro students said that the class had created new heroes for them. They cited Mum Bett, Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass — all former slaves who led the abolition movement.

In middle school, “they made slaves seem useless, never defending themselves,” Coleman said. “But all along, they were really trying to fight. They did everything in their power to be equal.”

Before, “we just learned that they got put on a boat and they came here,” Rivera added. “But in this class, we learned about the strategies they used to fight back and protect themselves, how some of them jumped off the ships because they didn’t want to live that life of a slave. It’s crazy how we hand it all up to this one person, a white man, who didn’t even want to free them, when all he wanted was to unify the country.”

Even if they did talk about the resistance to slavers in middle school, it was often only as armed uprisings, Fletcher said.

“They painted slaves as just angry, but after really studying, you see they used different strategies: with the law, with the church,” she said. “These people really used their minds. There’s a stereotype that Black people are angry all the time, how they fight their way out of things. This slams that into the ground.”

Braginsky’s syllabus begins with a debate about the terms for Black and Latinx people and the way race-thinking began. It covered the early history of Africa and Latin America, before moving on to slavery and abolitionism.

After this unit on borders, students will study the postbellum Reconstruction era and then work on a research paper about the “legacies of resistance” that will be presented at Metro’s annual social justice symposium.

Braginsky had previously taught American studies at Metro, but she asked if she could switch to a new course on African-American and Latinx history this year.

To prepare for this class, Braginsky said she read a lot of books, finding Paul Ortiz’s “An African American and Latinx History of the United States” particularly helpful. She took courses with the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. She surveyed Metro students, who told her, “Ugh, we don’t want to learn about slavery,” and she met with Students for Educational Justice, who also told her to avoid “fun facts” about obscure inventors.

“The stakes feel high for this class for me,” Braginsky said. “It’s a privilege to teach and and a responsibility to teach it right.”

Growing up in the Cleveland suburbs, Braginsky said she’d been “sorely miseducated,” mostly by what her classes left out. In English class, every book was written by a white man, except one by a white woman, Carson McCuller’s “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter,” which became her favorite.

“I was ill-informed about what other people had suffered at the hands of white supremacy. I knew nothing of the resistance. I didn’t even know the ‘fun facts,’” she said. “It creates less justice in our country when people don’t have this history.”

Braginsky said she hopes the class instills a passion for history and education in her students.

“I love the idea of them out in the world educating other people: their peers or even professors,” she said. “And I love the idea of them becoming historians and teachers. I hope this course inspires them to do to that, especially because we need more Black and Latinx teachers in New Haven and across the country.”

That’s already true for some of her students, who say they have a newfound appreciation for history.

“I think it’s great that we’re finally putting this into a curriculum, to teach kids of color about their history. It should empower them to be the new leaders,” Rivera said. “I wasn’t always interested in history, because it was the same old thing told to us over and over again. The way this class is, it’s storytelling almost: you’re very immersed in it, you feel like you’re there, the emotions these people are feeling. It makes you feel like you’re part of this history.”

Braginsky, though, might not be there by the time her former students return to Metro to teach classes like this. Lately, she’s been thinking about how much longer she should keep working in New Haven.

She said she feels a “responsibility” to teach these lessons in Connecticut’s suburbs, where she doesn’t think it’s “particularly hospitable” for teachers of color to talk about the same truths.

“As much as I hate the construct of whiteness, they are my people,” Braginsky said. “I have to get right with them.”

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