“The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” – Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980)
“When you control a man’s thinking you don’t have to worry about his actions.” – Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)
Its regulations were specifically designed to dismantle the nascent and successful Mexican American Studies program of the Tucson Unified School District.
In 2010, the Arizona State Legislature passed HR 2281, banning the instruction of any course that was designed for pupils of a particular ethnic group, fostered ethnic solidarity, promoted resentment towards a race or class of people, or advocated the overthrow of the United States government (HR 2281). This bill was fear-driven political interest made to look like urgent education reform. Its regulations were specifically designed to dismantle the nascent and successful Mexican American Studies program of the Tucson Unified School District. As part of the program, students of all backgrounds were taught American history through the lens of the Chicanx population, including historical realities like the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the United Farm Workers Association, violent discrimination and segregation of Mexican Americans, and the Chicano Power Movement. In the few years that these classes were taking place, a study found that the Mexican American Studies program boosted student achievement and graduation rates among the majority Latino school districts (Cabrera). Students of all backgrounds felt more politically engaged and seemed empowered to make better sense of what they witnessed happening around them everyday. Despite the success and enormous popularity of the program, the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne,
published an open letter to the citizens of Tucson in which he wrote, “the evidence is overwhelming that ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School District teaches a destructive chauvinism citizens of Tucson should no longer tolerate” (Horne). His letter was draped in the language of colorblindness, equality, and ‘reverse racism’, but clearly displayed a fear for what the Mexican American Studies Students, teachers, and community members protesting HR 2281 in Tucson, AZ (Los Angeles Times) instruction could lead to in students of both Chicanx and other backgrounds. When Tucson erupted in protest after the passage of HR 2281, I joined in disapproval of the bill but did not fully understand the implications of this legislation and the motivations behind it. After this fellowship, it is painfully clear to me why HR 2281 was passed, and why there continue to be intentional efforts to block or manipulate the instruction of history from a people of color lens.
I can sense myself walking away from Atlanta differently than when I arrived—more proud and more humble with the feeling that I have learned so much and that I have so much yet to learn.
The John Lewis Fellowship has been one of the most metamorphic experiences of my life. I can sense myself walking away from Atlanta differently than when I arrived—more proud and more humble with the feeling that I have learned so much and that I have so much yet to learn. I sense my activism reenergized and maturing as I continue to digest all the ways that this extraordinary program has impacted me. Yet one of the impressions I find most present in my mind is the recognition that teaching history from the perspective of people of color has the radical power to ignite social activism.
teaching history from the perspective of people of color has the radical power to ignite social activism.
From day one, the strong, brilliant, passionate scholar-activists leading this program emphasized the idea of sankofa: reaching back to move forward. They recognized the power that history has in inspiring current generations of activists not only to better understand their positionality in the world, but also to see that oppression continues today in many of the same forms it has in the past. Moreover, they taught—and embodied—the responsibility we each have to pick up the baton of resistance left to us by our ancestors. As Dr. Daniel Black said, “The blood has demands.” We are required to be activists to improve the condition of oppressed communities in the U.S. and internationally, but also to honor and understand the groundwork that has been laid by so many that have come before us. Without knowing this history—history of and by people of color—it is far too easy to detach activism from the real world and forget one’s responsibility to the blood. Education is inextricably linked to freedom, and, in a world where our human rights are constantly being attacked or denied, we need this type of radical education—we need ethnic studies—to cultivate leaders who understand and can navigate cultural crises.
It wasn’t until my first years of college that I actually began to learn about Chicanx history, and started to embrace my identity.
As a Chicana-Lebanese American, I craved to see my people’s history taught to me in school. I grew up in Tucson, a mestizo borderlands community infused with a blend of Mexican, Native American, Mexican American, and American cultures, but I never saw the history behind this blend translated into my curriculum. I had heard stories from my grandmother about the abuse she faced as a Mexican American child growing up in the 1940’s but I never heard anything about that reality in school. I recognized the name Cesar Chavez and his face from the murals but I never spent a day of class learning about the United Farm Workers of America or the Chicano Power Movement. And, of course, I certainly never heard a whisper about what it meant to be an Arab or Muslim American in this country beyond the occasional “Do you know any terrorists?” question. My conceptualization of the legacy of oppression and resistance from which I descended was informed entirely by my parents and the informal education they gave me. It wasn’t until my first years of college that I actually began to learn about Chicanx history, and started to embrace my identity. Through this process, I felt connected to and empowered by my cultural inheritance in a way I never had before. Not coincidentally, this journey to empowerment also marked the beginning of my activism around human rights on the border. I had always had a passion for human rights, but for the first time I really felt a connection to my people and a duty to address the gross human rights abuses happening to them and other Latinxs in the region.
This is an all too common experience for children of color growing up in the U.S. We live in societies dominated by Whiteness, (2) societies that seek to define, control, and promote narrow images of us. Through media, policy, and education, we are taught to understand ourselves through offensive stereotypes and are removed from any proud connection we may have to our racial or ethnic identity. Rewriting or completely refusing to teach our history is one of the most subtly brutal methods that have been utilized to perpetuate the narrative that people of color are small, of little contribution and little importance. Moreover, education is used to promote the idea that we live in a post-racial society where everyone is treated equally and where racism is a rarity rather than a mundane, pervasive characteristic of American culture. As Tom Horne said in an interview in 2010, “We shouldn’t teach our kids the downer that they’re oppressed” (CNN). For students of color whose daily experiences teach them the opposite, this lack of validation and historical understanding can be personally and socially destructive. As the artist Fahamu Pecou said on the last day of the fellowship, “We stick to this idea that if we stay in our lane, if we keep our head down, if we wear a suit and tie, if we say “yes, sir” and “no, mam” that we’ll stay alive, but that is no life.”
The John Lewis Fellowship’s commitment to re-learning the history of the long Civil Rights Movement inspired my own investigation into the Chicano Power Movement and similar actions.
I came to the John Lewis Fellowship with years of experience in human rights activism on the U.S.-Mexico border and what I believed to be a good understanding of the struggles of communities of color in the U.S. I quickly realized, however, that I absolutely didn’t have a deep enough knowledge about the history and current status of the black struggle, and that I had never explored in any real depth the inextricable connections between the long Civil Rights Movement and the Latinx struggle against oppression. I felt embarrassingly disconnected from my history and from the long legacy of solidarity and parallels that existed between the black and brown struggles for liberation. The John Lewis Fellowship’s commitment to re-learning the history of the long Civil Rights Movement inspired my own investigation into the Chicano Power Movement and similar actions. I would spend the day entrenched in exciting conversation about figures like Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin, and the night learning for essentially the first time about leaders like Dolores Huerta and Corky Gonzales. This continued rediscovery fostered even more pride in my identity and cultural inheritance, as well as a renewed and strengthened commitment to solidarity among oppressed people, however that oppression is manifested (i.e. racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, etc.) I am going home wanting to learn more about the Chicanx legacy, to collect more personal and communal history, and translate that pride into my current activism.
Too often, people of color in the U.S. are made to think that our voices do not matter when, in fact, in 21st century America the minority voice might actually be the largest untapped political power there is.
The John Lewis Fellowship empowered us to understand the critical importance of history, but along those same lines, it also helped me see that the personal journey of discovery I continue to go through was something that needed to be replicated on a larger scale in order to truly ignite the widespread social activism and political engagement by people of color that the world needs. Too often, people of color in the U.S. are made to think that our voices do not matter when, in fact, in 21st century America the minority voice might actually be the largest untapped political power there is. As Dr. Beverly Tatum said when she referenced Steve Phillips’ book Brown is The New White, we are living in a country of rapidly shifting demographics where people of color are no longer the minority, but form a minority majority with a political powerhouse. According to Phillips, of the 8,000 people born in this country every day, 90 percent are people of color; this is a stark contrast to 1950 when 90 percent were White (Phillips). Imagine the change we could see if more young adults, both White and of color, had the knowledge of true— not whitewashed or reimagined—history in their arsenal. Imagine the social activism and refusal to accept the status quo that would result if more people meaningfully understood the historical and contemporary systems that are used to keep minority communities “in check”.
Whiteness would have us not teach the history of minorities in this country for fear that it would cause division—as if institutional racism has not already perfected that role
It is no coincidence that so few people in society have a meaningful understanding of history, particularly history of people of color. As I stated in the beginning of this reflection, the passage of HR 2281 in Arizona was an intentional political agenda to keep ethnic studies out of public schools. The Whiteness power structure that dominates so many societies around the world, but specifically that controls the U.S., knows what this type of education means. It recognizes the untapped political and social power of the voice of communities of color. It fears this power. It fears what it would mean for millions of people, White and of color, to step up in coalition and dethrone Whiteness from its seat of control that it has enjoyed for centuries and believes it deserves, especially at the cost of other human beings. It is precisely out of this fear that the language of colorblindness and equality is being used to control access to information and the resultant pride and anger that would occur in communities of color and in White allies. Whiteness would have us not teach the history of minorities in this country for fear that it would cause division—as if institutional racism has not already perfected that role—or sow hatred against Whiteness. But as Malcolm X said, “History is not hatred.” History is reality. History is repeating itself every day. We are witnessing a fear-driven offensive pervade in our society, from the meticulous filtering of news media, to the outright banning of ethnic studies programs, to the domination of political campaigns by fear-mongering bigots who indoctrinate the masses with blatantly false information about minorities.
As John Lewis fellows we are members of a diverse community of social change-makers and activists with a vital responsibility, that is to continually educate ourselves and use that knowledge to impact those around us and to train the upcoming generation of activists who will inevitably have even more social and political power than we do today. One of my favorite quotes of all time is by the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara when he said, “El conocimiento nos hace responsables.” Knowledge makes us responsible. This quote has influenced me for much of my life, but never have I felt it more applicable than I do now with this unique fellowship and cohort of leaders. We, as educated and informed activists, must be cognizant of the intentional narrative formulating around us. We need to disseminate the information we know and use our own knowledge of history—and its modern day manifestations—to expose the hypocrisy, racism, and destruction of the truth. It will not be an easy task, but as Sojourner Truth said, “I feel safe in the midst of my enemies, for the truth is all powerful and will prevail.”
1 Malcolm X speaking in an interview in 1963
2 I use the term Whiteness to refer to those, White and non-White, who implicitly or explicitly prescribe to the belief in White supremacy.
- Cabrera, NL. “Missing the (Student Achievement)
- Forest for All the (Political) Trees: Empiricism and the Mexican American Studies Controversy in Tucson.” American Educational Research Journal 51.6 (2014): 1084- 1118.
- CNN. “Ethnic Studies Ban Racist?” YouTube. 13 May 2010.
Democracy Now! “Debate: Tucson School’s Book Ban After Suspension of Mexican American Studies Program 1 of 2.” YouTube. 18 Jan. 2012. Web.
- Horne, Tom. “An Open Letter to the Citizens of Tucson.” 11 June 2007.
H.R. 2281 Arizona (2010).
Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1980. Print.
Los Angeles Times. Tucson: 2012. Web. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/28/opinion/la-ed- mexican-american-studies-20121128
“Malcolm X-History Is Not Hatred.” Interview by Louis Lomax. 1963. Accessed via web. Phillips, Steve. Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New
- American Majority. 2015. Print.
Woodson, Carter Godwin. The Mis-Education of the Negro. 1933. Print.