Teaching History From Black and Hispanic Perspectives
AUSTIN, TX — A professor at Huston-Tillotson College has created a program that challenges honors students to look at Texas history and a few other subjects in a new way.
Three years ago, Dr. June Brewer began what is called the “Dos Culturas” (Spanish for “two cultures”) program at the predominantly Black college in Austin, which also includes a sizable number of Mexican Americans in its student population. The program, consisting of one or two honors courses per semester and related field trips and activities, offers subjects from both an African-American and a Hispanic-American perspective. In most of the classes, material is presented by a teaching team comprised of one African-American and one Hispanic-American professor or lecturer.
The program, which Brewer and others believe to be unique in concept, is in the third year of a three-year grant provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. Brewer said she is worried because the $300,000 grant is nearly gone and she hopes to be able to continue the program.
Brewer, a professor emeritus, whose title is director of Huston-Tillotson’s multicultural honors program, came out of retirement to direct the program. She said she doesn’t plan to quit teaching again if she can find more financial support for the Dos Culturas program. Brewer believes in the concept so strongly that she is now preparing to write several grant applications in hopes of securing funding to continue the program.
“I just spent $425 of my own money to go to a grantsmanship workshop. I’m going to get funded,” she says with determination.
Brewer not only oversees the program but teaches a freshman composition course in which students begin examining the two minority cultures that have become closely intertwined in the Lone Star State. She also pairs teachers and students on field trips that take them to Mexico to experience Hispanic culture firsthand.
The classroom experience amazed 19-year-old Felipe Garcia, who grew up attending predominantly African-American schools in Dallas but had never heard some of the African-American viewpoints until he took a “Dos Culturas” course.
“It has helped me learn about the other race’s culture and its history,” Garcia said. “It was really cool. It gave me a lot more respect for them. In public school, we didn’t go into detail, like the relationship between what the Blacks and the Mexican Americans went through. There were good and bad relationships.”
Brewer said she is especially proud of a new offering this spring which will steer her honors students into the political arena. It is a course in coalition politics — one that she hopes will encourage young leaders to work together to solve problems that are common to both minority communities. That is, she says, the ultimate goal of the twin perspectives classes and why she wants to see them continue.
“In the first place, we’re sharing the same place,” she said. “And in many instances, the place that was the ghetto is becoming the barrio — whether it is Watts in Los Angeles or here in East Austin. We don’t get adequate resources. We need to start working together. Since we’re sharing the same place, that becomes very important.”
Increasing Ethnic Identity
The pivotal course of the program is a freshman composition course that Brewer teaches by herself. Her objective is to get her students started on a path of greater understanding of their own culture.
“The goal is to increase the ethnic identity of our students,” she said. “We do a lot on the Mexican American and the African-American cultures.”
The college, which has an enrollment of about 650 students, is located in the heart of East Austin, where recently arrived immigrants from Mexico are steadily displacing longtime African-American residents. Each ethnic group holds one seat apiece on the City Council. Over the past several years, it has been as common for the groups to be at odds politically as it has been for them to be working together. Brewer strongly believes that can change if young leaders begin forging ahead with a stronger understanding of the other group’s problems and concerns.
That is precisely the academic strategy of 19-year-old Tarrynce Robinson, who took the Texas History course and is now enrolled in the Coalition Politics course.
“Coalition politics is important for me because I’m a government major,” Robinson said. “I want to go into politics or law. This is giving me lessons that I will need to succeed. It is giving me a jump-start.”
The twin perspectives also have Surprised him, he said.
“Being from Texas, you already have this view of the way the Alamo and stuff like that happened,” Robinson said. “But this was really kind of a shock. The way I was told about history before was not what they (Mexican Americans) were really striving for…and what Texas was trying to strive for. It kind of makes you think the Mexican Americans were right. They were trying to protect their own land and they wanted to outlaw slavery.”
One teacher, Robinson said, could not have been as effective as two teachers from two different cultures.
“There’s no way that one person could teach from both sides of the fence,” he said. “Every time a topic comes up, it’s like they take you by the hand and show you the key aspects. Before, being African American, I really only wanted to know about African Americans. But you need to know as much about the Hispanic culture as possible since their population is growing so quickly. Being bilingual will toe very important. I’m taking two Spanish courses.”
`More Complete Picture’
The “Dos Culturas” concept also has been enlightening to those doing the teaching, says David A. Williams, who co-taught the Texas History course.
“I learned about the interrelationship between the Mexican American and the African American in Texas,” Williams said. “It was something I had never thought about before — especially in places like West Texas and South Texas. I also learned how the Tejanos were able to maintain their culture in South Texas and Central Texas.”
Williams, who has taught for more than 30 years and is president of the Texas African American Heritage Organization, said the team teaching concept is employed at many public schools and universities but he had never heard of mixing cultural perspectives until he was asked to do so by Brewer. He is certain that students in the courses will have less trouble working with those from other races than will’ other students.
“There’s an understanding of one another that didn’t exist before,” Williams said. “I think this kind of course would be an enriching experience whether you were white, Black, brown or Asian.”
Williams said alternative perspectives to mainstream history books and courses will provide a “more complete picture” of what actually happened, including the contributions that African Americans made to Texas history outside of being slaves. Few people, he said, even know there were free African Americans who played key roles in the state’s development.
“Many of the Mexican Americans were very naive of their concept of what African Americans were all about until they took this course,” he said.
Garcia said that certainly was the case where he was concerned.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” he said. It was beneficial for a lot of students.”
Brewer said she has been happy that the idea has been so warmly received by teachers and students alike. Her only disappointment has been the fact that few Mexican-American women have enrolled in the course or, for that matter, at the school.
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