William Boyland, Jr., representing the 55th Assembly District in Brooklyn, has introduced legislation that, on its face, is deceptively simple: a statewide mandate for multicultural education. All schools, including elementary, junior and senior high schools, shall be required to teach a multicultural curriculum. The State Education Commissioner, currently David Steiner, shall set out rules and regulations for implementation.
This legislation would consider “the differences in the cultural composition of each school” with the commissioner directing schools to “do research and observation on their own student body in order to particularize multicultural education to fit such education to such schools.” In addition, the commissioner shall “set out a teacher education program in order to train teachers and educators to teach and interact with students of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.”
Our Time Press interviewed Assemblyman Boyland one-on-one to explore his proposed legislation in detail.
OTP: Assemblyman Boyland, why did you think multicultural education is necessary?
Boyland: The basic idea is that in Chinatown, they should learn their own culture because a lot of them are born here, in Flushing, and other parts of the city. In our neighborhood, one thing that I find is that a lot of our kids don’t know who they are. They don’t know their culture. They don’t know where they come from. I do a mentoring group at Thomas Jefferson and I asked a young man was he aware who El Hajj Malik el Shabazz was. He said, “Who is that, one of those terrorists?” It blew me away. I said “OK, do you know who Malcolm X is?” He, all of a sudden, became clear. They don’t understand where we came from, who we are, why we are, and what is in place today for them. I don’t want our kids to miss these opportunities. In so many instances a lot of our kids lose their way because they don’t know where they come from.
OTP: What would be solved by our kids knowing who they are culturally?
Boyland: There is a huge gap with kids not knowing their culture – music, our other accomplishments. What did Martin Luther King or Malcolm X achieve with what they didn’t have, as opposed to all the advantages that we have today? There are a lot of individuals who are happy just to be at the table, and there are so many of us owning tables now. So many of us are policy-makers. You have to understand, the culture that is hip-hop, is now driving the industry. In the Oscars, hip-hop is a huge influence. I was listening to a commercial on the radio the other day. It was hip-hop about the census. We have influenced this country, this world – the financial industry, the entertainment industry, you name it, our influence is all over the place. But we don’t know that. We have no idea what that is. What’s missing is knowledge of our worth and letting folks know they come from royalty. It’s not just the Black folks. It’s the Chinese, the Indians, the Hispanics. We want to let our folks know exactly who they are and where they come from.
OTP: I have to ask this. Generally when we heard about the Black leaders who will be taught under this, we hear about the males. You just mentioned two, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. If the curriculum includes Abernathy, Adam Clayton Powell, Thurgood Marshall, we are still talking about men. Will this multi-cultural curriculum have a gender balance to it?
OTP: A lot of times the Black issues are defined by males and the issues are male-oriented issues. The females get lost even though the females are depended upon to do the picketing, to take care of the children. We want to know if the worth of the multicultural female is going to be included.
Boyland: Women are the backbone of our culture. Bed Stuy and Brownsville are my areas. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that Lena Horne lived on Decatur Street and Nostrand Ave. There are so many African-American females and Hispanic females who have made their mark on this world. I would be remiss if I didn’t have that conversation with the commissioner that this has to be implemented. We have to have gender as a conversation.
To talk on a broader scale, I am not a big fan of Black History Month. I think we should be talking about our culture throughout the year. Women are such a big part of who we are. Look at our neighborhoods today. Women are a huge part of where we are now. There is a lack of males right now doing it. We are in leadership, of course. But, I go to the meetings, I go to the PTA’s. I am at the community boards. There are a lot of women in that room. There are more females than men in schools, in churches. When I went to college, the ratio of women to men was 27 to 1 at Virginia State University. I was there a few weeks ago. Now they are telling me the number is more like 48 to 1. I think this curriculum would help that to let our young men coming out of high school understand the female’s worth. The culture is so rich here. It’s here, but we don’t celebrate it. This is a good step towards that.
OTP: So, underneath this multicultural curriculum, children, both boys and girls will be taught to respect themselves and each other?
Boyland: Of course. Our culture does not celebrate us enough. We are thinking just me, me, me. We need to celebrate our stars. Our kids are our stars.
OTP: How would this multicultural curriculum celebrate intellectual achievement as opposed to just music, arts and sports. How would this help children aspire to intellectual achievement, not just as a student, but as a well-rounded person?
Boyland: I have also polled my peers and high school kids while putting this legislation together. This is wanted. We learn American history; it is a requirement. Why don’t we learn about kings and queens from Africa as we transitioned into slavery and what that did to us? A lot of us need to understand what happened when our names, language, religion, culture and families were taken from us. We have the Oprah Winfrey’s, the Sean “Puffy” Combs. We have to understand how they have adapted and succeeded in this civilization. They didn’t have it easy. They chose academics. We have to show these examples and celebrate them. We need to celebrate the kids who are getting 4.0’s.
OTP: Part of the problem, not just in New York State, but in the United States, is that the children of the majority culture have not learned about the humanity of African-Americans. They don’t realize we didn’t just come from Mars and became slaves, buffoons and minstrels. In addition to learning about our own cultures, what about learning about each other’s cultures? What about kids of European descent learning about other cultures?
Boyland: That is the end result. Where we are, we have African-American, Hispanic, Muslim – all here. First of all, the Hispanic kid learns about his culture. As he matriculates, he learns about the Asian, the whites, etc. That is a huge problem in this country. That is where a lot of our divisive problems come into play. We don’t know about each other. A lot of people don’t know that the architectural layout of Washington, D.C. was in Masonic, which is African. The Jewish stars on a lot of churches here in Brownsville- we don’t know where that comes from. We don’t even bother to question it.
Initially, my vision for this legislation is for the specific demographic to learn about themselves. As you matriculate up, learn about who is in your neighborhood, then who is surrounding your neighborhood, and who is surrounding that neighborhood. Let us learn about ourselves first, then learn about other cultures.
OTP: What about the long history of struggle in NYS to get multicultural education – the fight over the Curriculum of Inclusion and what came out of Dr. Adelaide Sanford’s work and Galen Kirkland’s (current NYS Human Rights Commissioner) report on the importance of cultural education for students of African ancestry? What was supposed to be implemented was the history of underrepresented groups: African-American, Jewish and Irish. What came out is that now Jewish history is now richly taught, with almost ubiquitous professional development for teachers. The same with Irish history. But African-American culture, the catalyst for these education reforms, has been lagging behind in NYS.
Boyland: Why do you think that is?
OTP: I am asking you.
Boyland: Inclusion is the big deal. We have historically been separated from ourselves, from our culture. We have been historically told we weren’t worth anything. We, of course, know better. We haven’t been able to come together. There are so many different issues that plague our communities, that separate us from our goal.
OTP: Regarding the Curriculum of Inclusion, on the state level from the legislators point of view, were you looking for scholars to formally write the curriculum? Isn’t that curriculum out there? What was the gap between the Curriculum of Inclusion and the actual implementation of it in the school systems, so that years later, you are drafting legislation calling for multicultural education?
Boyland: You mentioned the Jews and the Irish. They thought about their culture and the people they represent and they kept pushing it. They worked until the legislation came together. It got to the governor, who signed it into law. They were able to bring their communities around this. I just don’t think there was enough push to put it together. I think it would already be here if that had been the case.
OTP: We have Dr. Leonard Jeffries from CUNY, we have Dr. Adelaide Sanford, we had John Henrik Clarke, we still have Dr. Ben.
Boyland: Those are our scholars. They were pushing. But it didn’t happen on the statewide level. This legislation makes it a mandate. It happened with the Jewish culture, but it didn’t happen with us. This would make that happen.
OTP: What happened on the statewide level?
Boyland: You had the Al Vann’s, the Arthur Eve’s, the Roger Greene’s, my father. There were several people. This dates from the early 1970’s when Governor Paterson’s father was there. It wasn’t something that was brought to the forefront on the floor. You have to understand how the process works. You have to get stuff to committee, and the caucus behind it. The Black, Latino and Asian Caucus is behind this legislation. At that time, there were four members of the caucus when this conversation was initially started in terms of multicultural curriculum. This would be the first piece of legislation put together. Leadership has been an issue over time. There are so many different camps that pop up. We don’t work together. That has been a problem in Black communities for quite some time.
OTP: You are saying, without naming names, that since the 70’s, between the Black and Hispanic legislators, they couldn’t get together and unify around multi-cultural education for Black and Hispanic children?
Boyland: I believe that would already be in play if that was the case. The other cultures have it. In my research, a 10-year-old Jewish kid can tell you about his history. Our kids can’t. I am wondering why. In my opinion, I believe we could have done a better job. I am not talking about the scholars. I am not talking about what Al Vann or Jitu Weusi taught at 271. I am not talking about them. I am talking about the folks that can make it a mandate of the state level to make sure that the folks in Buffalo, Watertown, Hempstead, Brownsville, Jamaica, Queens – where we live – are understanding what Malcolm X did and where he came from. I want this to be a rallying call for our leadership to make sure our kids are taught, and then subsequently taught about other races. That is a major problem in our neighborhoods. We need to understand each other – the brother from Palestine or the sister from Spain.
The curriculum that our kids are being taught pushes them so far behind. We aren’t making a big stink about that. The test prep mentality that this administration and others have put on communities just like ours has pushed us so far behind. I mean, 70% remediation in CUNY is incredibly crazy. If the kids are not being taught at home, guess what, they aren’t learning it. They won’t learn it at all.
It is my responsibility as a legislator and a leader to make sure our folks learn. We don’t want to be in the situation where opportunities come and we can’t do anything with them because we are not prepared. As a leader, and someone who has a say as to what kind of education comes into our community, I have to talk. I think it would be irresponsible for me not to. I want folks to hold me responsible as a leader. The bigger picture is to make sure that for the Adelaide Sanford’s, the Jitu Weusi’s and the different individuals who came together initially to put this kind of legislation together, we should make sure that goes through.
OTP: What about the question of money? How is this going to be paid for? Who is going to create the textbooks? Who is going to make sure local education districts purchase the textbooks? Who is going to pay for the development of the curriculum?
Boyland: I don’t think a Jewish person can write Black history. An African-American person, I believe, is the only one who can put this kind of deal together. We can collaborate with folks on different things. We are still negotiating. The State Board of Education would implement it through designated state funds that cannot be diverted. During our negotiations we have talked about workshops for teacher development that the state would pay for. The RFP’s related to this legislation would require writing the curriculum as well as teaching the teachers.
We are still in negotiations with the NYC education reps. I hope that won’t be our biggest hurdle. I know the reality of where we are and who we are dealing with, and what’s at stake here. But I don’t plan on giving this fight up. It is a torch we have decided to carry.