"He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." - George Orwell.
Until I learned about my history, as a multi-racial, Caribbean woman; as a person who shares in the history of Spain, Colombia, Cuba, and the United States; and as a person who is part of lines of people whose resources were stolen to enrich other lines of people who I am also part of; before all that, I thought my culture was something out of a Cheech and Chong movie or the "Insane in the Membrane" video. When I learned about my cultural history, I knew who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do in the world, and I became a lot less angry about life, a lot kinder to people around me, a lot more productive as a citizen. But this process of learning that I was able to achieve in the U.S. is now under attack. We are being told by government officials like Tom Horne, John Huppenthal and others like them that the process by which I learned to love myself and others will cause dissent in the U.S., instead of the exact opposite effect exemplified by my life.
Last night, 3/3/2012, Azucarera Gallery, in New York City, held a screening of "Precious Knowledge," an excellent film that documents the banning of a high school-level ethnic studies program in Tucson, Arizona. We were honored to be able to speak with Maria Federico Brummer, Mexican-American Studies Teacher, and Sean Arce, Founding Teacher and Director of Tuscon Unified School District's Mexican American Studies. The grief over what young, brilliant students of all colors and ethnicities have gone through in Tucson was felt deeply in the cozy gallery, many of us crying when white, African American and Latino/a students described how empowering learning a full history of the U.S. has been for them. And crying again upon seeing adults ignore that such a program has created a nearly 100% graduation rate among these students, even thouugh students outside of the program have much lower graduation rates.
Not only have government officials banned the successful teaching program, but they, as many of you already know, have also banned any books that could be used for any future programs of this kind. Many of the books that were banned were used in my dissertation, again reinforcing how the knowledge contained in them is vital for the growth of people of color.
However, I would like to point out how banning these books and programs like these does not just put the growth of people of color at risk. Such bans put the growth of people who identify as White at risk, too. Here is my list and the reasoning for each item:
1. White people love these books.
The authors found on the banned list include Sandra Cisneros, a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and graduate of the Iowa Creative Writing Program (both institutions largely funded by White people); Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize recipient (again, a prize funded by White people); Jonathan Kozol, Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship (funded by "The Nation" magazine - guess who largely runs it); and Howard Zinn, who was an advisor to the United Nations and who even garnered an award from France. Did I mention bell hooks, the African American woman who won an American Book Award? Essentially banning ethnic studies books is banning American books that have been awarded by our highest institutions, which in turn were founded by people who identify as White. If these books are "seditious," as Tucson officials have claimed, why have White people awarded them? Why is Tucson spitting on the opinions of some of our greatest institutions which were founded by White people? By the way, these are not the only awarded books; all of them on the list have received international acclaim.
2. White kids love to learn about how to live peacefully with all kinds of people and they love to learn about their own ties to people who they once thought of as "other."
The film, "Precious Knowledge" documents countless White people who are protesting right alongside Blacks and Latinos/as. Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" documents all the wonderful White people who happily lived among people of various cultures and the inspirational white leaders who fought for racial and cultural equality for all. Such words create bonds between all peoples. It makes for really happy White kids.
3. If we want to have more resources to exploit economically, educating kids of color will create a wealth of ideas that everyone can benefit from.
I went to school with a bunch of kids of color who, for the most part, know their history. Such knowledge has made them some of the most productive people on the planet. We have CEOs, opera singers, theater artists, writers, scholars, educators, all of whom are paying taxes and providing a ton of goods and services to our country. If this pool of students of color had been left to learn about themselves from an incomplete list of information - nothing about African American history, for example - they would not have had the flexibility or sensitivity or cosmopolitan knowledge needed to compete in a global economy. Historical perspective does not create dissent; it creates productive citizens that Whites and a host of other people will want to work with. I'll keep repeating it as long as I have to.
4. Ethnic studies is a concept that is all-inclusive. That is, if you get in on it, you can begin to create books, pedagogy, films, etc., that will allow more White people to discover their roots.
For example, ethnic studies can include books on Jewish enclaves in Latin America, books on Irish Americans or Italian Americans; films on how the Puerto Rican population and the Polish American population in Chicago lived together in Logan Square in Chicago; music studies that show the relationship between German music and Tejano music in Texas. I got a whole bunch of ideas, yo! Take 'em - make that money! It's good for EVERYBODY.
5. White scholars are the people who promoted these books.
The first time I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book that is chastised over and over again by Tom Horne and John Huppenthal in the film "Precious Knowledge" as a racist book, was in a classroom led by a White scholar. My professor also had us read the somewhat conservative John Dewey. Our classroom wasn't a radical classroom, it was just one that promoted good pedagogy. Which brings me to my next point.
6. The banned books are internationally recognized as some of the best work to come out of the U.S.; banning them makes White people in the U.S. look insane. It is not good international public relations.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed is read all over the world, The House on Mango Street is read all over the world, Critical Race Theory is read all over the world, Borderlands is read all over the world - do I need to go on?
7. Banning pedagogy and books is a waste of time and money, for people of color but mostly for taxpayers and Whites in government.
Instead of spending time figuring out where to put students who are in overcrowded classrooms or making sure that families who have lost their jobs are able to access adequate shelter and food, government officials are banning books which have been praised by some of our most accomplished citizens. The legal fees paid by tax dollars, the time spent on Byzantine conversations that miss the mark, the misery caused to students and their families who are heartbroken when their education is taken away is entirely useless. The energy could be used in much more productive ways. It leaves everyone feeling drained - it is not an energy-giver, it is an energy-taker.
On the other hand, meetings like the one we had last night, where we take the desires of our young people to heart and figure out ways to make sure the world is safe for them, are so inspirational. I left Azucarera feeling so inspired that I HAD to write this blog, after being unable to write a blog, due to illness, for nearly a year.
I want to thank Nova Gutierrez, Vincent Toro and Greg Segarra for helping me to formulate my thoughts here. I also want to the thank Maria Federico Brummer and Sean Arce for coming to New York and injecting our hearts, minds and souls with the importance of this issue. I will be sharing the film with all of my students.
If anyone would like to add another reason why banning ethnic studies is counterproductive to the happiness of people who identify as White, please post!
*I initially put the word "White" in parentheses because I want to call attention to the fact that the idea of "whiteness" is looked at as a construction. Is a White Latino/a considered White culturally in the United States? Is a a White person from Algeria who moves to the U.S. actually African American? Many of the people who I met in Texas who identify as White actually have Mexican ancestry, either in their immediate family or further back in the family line. For this reason, too, I believe that ethnic studies, in the end, includes people who identify as White.