Friday, May 28, 2010

The Miseducation of Texas School Kids

by Afi-Odelia Scruggs

See, a bunch of guys needed something to do in 1865 and 1866, right after the Civil War. It wasn't like they could go back to their plantations; Northerners had seen to that. So these good ole boys amused themselves by dressing up in sheets and riding through the countryside pulling pranks. Just good, clean hijinks, until they discovered their antics terrorized former slaves. Then, things turned naughty and nasty.

But in the beginning, the Klan was just a social club.

How do I know this? I learned it in school.

Tennessee history was a required subject in the '60s, when I was a student. The Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tenn., a small town about 90 miles south of Nashville, my hometown.

Here's what the lessons omitted: The first Grand Wizard of the Klan, Confederate general and native Tennessean Nathan Bedford Forrest, made millions as a slave trader.

I can't remember reading anything about slavery in that class. But I've never forgotten about Forrest, the Klan and Pulaski, Tenn. They popped to mind when I read about the social studies curriculum recently approved by the Texas Board of Education. (The changes approved by the conservative Texas board include minimizing Thomas Jefferson's importance in the founding of this country, vindicating McCarthyism and downplaying the significance for the separation between church and state.)

Texas' social studies changes deserve more than the shrug of a shoulder. The state buys so many textbooks that its standards might seep into classrooms all over the nation.

If so, students will learn much about General Stonewall Jackson, and little about President Barack Obama. They'll be taught that states' rights, not slavery, caused the Civil War, and the civil rights movement had "unintended consequences," like affirmative action.

Read the entire article at The Root

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Banning Ethnic Studies: Why Stanley Fish's Take is Out of Bounds

Sometimes just making yourself at home is revolutionary"

--Slumberland, Paul Beatty

If you received the kind of secondary public education that I had, you would have believed that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, all Martin Luther King wanted in terms of human rights was for his children to drink from the same water fountains as the white kids, and that the socioeconomic hardships that black folks have endured in the U.S. were largely of their own making. My education was so thin, in fact, regarding African American contributions to the U.S. that I didn't realize that black folks wrote great books (including Harriet Jacobs' Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl, W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folks, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man) until I attended college. Indeed, when I enrolled in my first African American Studies course as a college sophomore I felt that my education up till that point in my life had been a complete sham. What I had learned of substance about slavery and black struggle at large could've easily fit on an index card.

And though at college I could take courses in African American Studies, the curriculum was set up in such a way that all of the course offerings were marginalized within it. So, for example, as an English Literature major, the three courses in African American Literature that I took at the time didn't count toward the completion of my major degree requirements. In real and symbolic ways, then, the white writers (including Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Dickinson, Faulkner, and Steinbeck) mattered; the black ones (including Morrison, Hurston, Ellison, Baldwin, and DuBois) didn't.

Indeed, when I informed my then academic advisor and Chair of the English department that I planned to pursue a doctorate degree in African American Literature, he reared back in his seat and let fly, "Why on earth would you do that?" He then followed, "What is there even to read?" Given that the faculty at the time consisted of two African Americans that taught African American Literature, his comments struck me as particularly venomous. I was later informed by one of the black faculty members that my advisor had plenty of company in his views; that there was a block of faculty members that actually prided themselves in having never read an African American novel. This happened, by the way, in the mid-1990s.

Given the extent to which African-American and non-white experiences have been marginalized—then and now—in public education (and, mind you, including these experiences in history, literature, and social studies text books does not mean that they are actually being taught in the classroom), the recent op-ed piece
"Arizona: The Gift that Keeps on Giving" by Stanley Fish in the
New York Times regarding the newly minted and explosive Arizona law banning ethnic studies wildly misses the mark.

Fish attacks the idea of politicizing curriculum, which includes casting the Raza studies classes in Arizona as propagandistic, because they encourage students to see our educational system as politically biased on matters of race and socially equality. Ignoring, among other things, the undeniable social variables of discrimination/oppression that ignited ethnic studies in the first place, Fish proposes that the problem with ethnic studies, generally, and Raza studies, in particular, as well as with the new Arizona laws banning them is that they all “politicize” education.

Considering the fact that our public education system was initially created with the expressed purpose to “nationalize” the citizens of the U.S. (we started every school day when I was child reciting the pledge of allegiance), Fish’s assertions that ethnic studies and Arizona legistlators are politicizing the curriculum simply have no grounds in history. That is to say, that our public schooling was--and continues to be--a politicized enterprise. (The recent overhaul of the school curriculum in Texas by the dominant conservative political arm of the elected educational board members is a striking case in point.) Ethnic studies programs make this dynamic visible and offer correctives, usually in the form of counter narratives, to enhance our study of the social, cultural, political, and economic world in which we exist. The Arizona ban on ethnic studies is, on one level, trying to shut this crucial dialogue down.

In a twisted political maneuver, conservative Arizona legislators turned the tables on the very programs created to address the racial politicization of education; the kind of politicization that kept folks like me ignorant to the central role that African Americans and historically oppressed groups played in shaping our republic.

Though to the untrained eye, Fish’s pronouncements might come across as “balanced” because he appears to analyze the pros and cons of each side of the issue, his wildly ahistorical analysis trivializes the issues at hand--namely, the lopsided power equation that continues to hold sway over how the historical realities of racial oppression in the U.S. are engaged in the classroom. Suffice to say that it is hardly a coincidence that most of what I, and generations before mine, have learned about African American realities was acquired outside the boundaries of the educational system.

Thankfully, a lot has changed for the better in the twenty years since I graduated high school. Writers like Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, are now staples in most American Literature classes. Critical engagements with the Civil Rights Movement and black struggle at large are becoming increasing more commonplace in the classroom too. These important and necessary changes to our educational curriculum are the direct result of political agitations and civil disobedience. Our history bears this out. Indeed, the absence of this consideration by Stanley Fish, a scholar of the first order, makes the strongest case that we need more, not less, challenges to educational conventions if we are to make good on the egalitarian principles that we claim to hold so dear.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Still a Nation of Cowards

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."
Eric Holder

Wasn't that long ago that Attorney General Eric Holder sparked a media blitz for declaring in a race speech during black history month (and shortly after being confirmed as the nation's first black attorney general) that America is a "nation of cowards" on matters of race. Considering that the country was still giddy to the point of hysteria over Barack Obama's historic election and black folks in particular were more optimism about race relations than ever before, Holder's was a rather bold and impolitic statement.

Predictably, folks on the left and right were calling for his head. How dare he rain on the parade of our country's most definitive public statement to date that we are indeed a colorblind society? Surely, a nation of cowards wouldn't have elected a black president or sanctioned his appointment as the first black attorney general. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times states flat out called the brotha a hypocrite. Save your lectures on race, she responded indignantly in an widely read op-ed piece.

As for Obama who is hardly blind to the realities of racial polities, if hamstrung to a large degree by his political office, he dodged the issue like a jedi warrior for weeks. When he could dodge no longer, he offered a mild rebuke of Holder's comments via the New York Times. Race talk, he opined, was not the answer; ending economic hardship for all Americans was. In other words, Holder spoke out of turn. That Holder got the message has been largely reflected in his conspicuous silence on matters of race.

Holder's silence aside, what we see now in the wake of Arizona's recent draconian laws, one of which virtually legalizes racial profiling and the another which abhorrently tags ethnic studies as racist and outlaws its teaching in secondary education, is that Holder's assessment of our racial state of affairs was right on the mark.

This came immediately to mind the other day as I passed a newly constructed billboard on the highway that read, "America. Love it or leave it." Though I've heard this saying more times that I carry to recount, it struck me as being particularly appropriate to the current racial climate. Though xenophobia has, in one way or another, informed and contaminated social politics and policy in the U.S. for some time, the impending reality that we are quickly becoming a majority-minority nation is starting to hit home for many and fueling a particularly nasty form of xenophobia that threatens to collapse in on us all.

As for being cowardly on matters of race, creating a convenient scapegoat in Latino/as immigrants stands atop the list. There's no debating that the federal government has, time and again, dropped the ball on enacting comprehensive and humane immigration reform. That something needs to be done and fast should be apparent to anyone with eyes to see.

Writer-humorist Zora Neale Hurston once famously said that she would die for this country but not lie for it. Encapsulated in her pronouncement is the true stuff of productive patriotism. Rather than hide or camouflage our social maladies, we should aggressively expose and seek to correct them. Rather than love it or leave it, we should be asserting "improve it or risk losing it." Fear-mongering on issues of race not only divides us, but it makes us shortsighted and weak. The true test of our melting pot experiment in America is upon us, whether we can pass it or not remains to be seen.