From the high plains of Wyoming to the urban centers of Atlanta, Chicago and New York City, hundreds of schools launched a historic teach-in movement today to incorporate lesson plans from the banished Mexican American Studies program in Tucson in their own classrooms.
Organized by the Teacher Activist Groups and joined by Rethinking Schools and other educational networks, the month-long “No History is Illegal” initiative comes on the heels of an unusually strong statement by over two dozen of the nation’s largest publishing, literary and education organizations that calls on the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) and Arizona state education officials to recognize First Amendment rights and “return all books to classrooms and remove all restrictions on ideas that can be addressed in class.”
Thousands of detained books remain behind lock and key in the school district’s warehouse like broken chairs and desks and school bus parts, despite the fact that the TUSD library catalog shows that there are less than 2-3 copies of several of the removed Mexican American Studies textbooks in the entire school district, which serves more than 55,000 students.
In outrage at the detained books, nearly 15,000 people have also signed a petition started by former Mexican American Studies teacher Norma Gonzalez, which calls on the Tucson school district to “immediately remove these books from their ‘district storage facility’ and make them available in each school’s library. Knowledge cannot be boxed off and carried away from students who want to learn!”
Signed by representatives of the Association of American Publishers, American Association of University Professors, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council for the Social Studies, National Council of Teachers of English, and the PEN American Center, among other national groups, the censorship statement yesterday also calls out the troubling doublespeak by Tucson Unified School District administrators like Superintendent John Pedicone, who declared the drastic confiscation of textbooks and curriculum materials in front of children and subsequent detainment in locked storage units is not a ban.
School officials have insisted that the books haven’t been banned because they are still available in school libraries. It is irrelevant that the books are available in the library — or at the local bookstore. School officials have removed materials from the curriculum, effectively banning them from certain classes, solely because of their content and the messages they contain. The effort to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, [or] religion” is the essence of censorship, whether the impact results in removal of all the books in a classroom, seven books, or only one.The American Library Association issued a similar denouncement of Tucson’s extraordinary book banishment and forced removals last week. A larger list of other unacceptable titles, including numerous Native American authors, from the banished Mexican American Studies literature and history curricula can be found here.
Along with curriculum lists, videos and suggested lesson plans, the “No History is Illegal” website includes links to other actions around the country. On Saturday, for example, educators and civil rights activists in Atlanta, Georgia are holding a special “teach-in on Tucson” at Georgia State University.
“The national outpouring of support has been amazing and this website, this movement of solidarity, is proof of this,” said former Mexican American Studies literature teacher Curtis Acosta. “It is humbling to think of the hard work that our friends across the country have produced to keep our story and program alive in the minds and hearts of so many people. I believe the tide is turning due to the deplorable enforcement of the law by our district. Now it is clear what the agenda was truly about — banning books, censoring teachers, rolling back the decades of civil rights and equality all to appease the desires of egocentric politicians. The love and respect from fellow educators and citizens will lift the hearts of our students during these dark days. Now they will know that they are not alone.”
February 1st, of course, also kicks off Black History Month, which pioneering historian Carter Woodson launched in West Virginia more than 80 years ago to address “distortions” and “deletions” in the historical record. Only days away from Arizona’s centennial celebrations on February 14th, residents in the beleaguered state, and particularly in Tucson, have once again been reminded of Woodson’s admonition to guard against the “danger of being exterminated” through historicide or the removal of certain histories from the national experience.
In her State of the Union last month, California-transplanted Gov. Jan Brewer failed to even mention a single Native American, Mexican American or African American in her round-up of pioneers in the state’s history.
In 1895, in fact, African American innovator Henry Flipper made history in Nogales, Arizona, when he became the first black editor of a non-black-owned newspaper in the nation. In the following spring, Flipper published a historical booklet, Did a Negro Discover Arizona and New Mexico, that provided some of the first translations of Spanish documents on the role of Moroccan slave and scout Esteban, who most historians consider to be the first non-native to enter present-day Arizona in 1539, at the head of a Spanish expedition.
“As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us,” the “No History is Illegal” website notes, “‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ What is happening in Arizona is not only a threat to Mexican American Studies, it is a threat to our right to teach the experiences of all people of color, LGBT people, poor and working people, the undocumented, people with disabilities and all those who are least powerful in this country. Our history is not illegal.”
Jeff Biggers is the American Book Award-winning author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation/Basic Books), among other books. Visit his website: www.jeffbiggers.com