Friday, 20 January 2012

Arizona and the Act of Denial

I'm not sure how to voice my utter disgust at a new law that the state of Arizona has just approved. Apparently, in a pretty much solid vote at the Tucson school board, books by Native American authors cannot be studied because they deal with "racial" issues. The list of banned books includes Rethinking Columbus by Bill Bigelow, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña and William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Yes, you read the last one right. I’ve never read this particular play, but apparently the school board was offended by the themes of “colonization and slavery”. Where to even begin…

The concept of banning books is chilling, but what’s worse is that teachers cannot use these particular books for reference in class, or keep them at school at all. As you might expect, the school board objected to the word “banned” and tried to backtrack, stating that the books had not been completely removed from libraries and classrooms. So while the books can still be found, they should not be used to teach students about race relations with Native Americans or Mexican Americans. Not really the best line of defence, but there you are.

Studying public history has given me some great insight into the legacy of events, their impact on society and how history can be manipulated or wielded like a patriotic sword in defence of the nation. The debate over what to teach children often leads to explosive ‘History Wars’ – what a nation stands for, what should be celebrated or condemned and ultimately what or who we want our children to learn about. Trying to whitewash or ignore history will get you nowhere. What this law is effectively doing is erasing knowledge of Arizona’s first inhabitants, yet again championing the European, Western narrative at the expense of indigenous cultures. You cannot discuss American history without reference to race, slavery or oppression – like it or not, these are many of the central themes of American history, much like any other colonizing nation (just look at Britain’s record). I’m not saying they are the only themes, but they are pretty important. How can history be taught with such gaping holes? What happened to both sides of the story? And, how are teachers expected to follow this through?

Every October the United States celebrates Columbus Day, commemorating the day that the explorer “discovered” the Americas. (I use inverted commas because to the Native Americans, the continent was already there.) If the ban holds, I will be very interested to see how the state of Arizona celebrates this day – perhaps with more book removals, a silence on racial discussions and a refusal to acknowledge American Indian heritage? All someone needs to do is throw in the words “Native American Genocide” and the school board leaders will probably have a collective heart attack. Regardless, the board has a bloody fight on their hands – and Native Americans will be leading the attack, particularly as over 50% of the community is Mexican-American.

The removal of books gives us a telling perspective on society – essentially, it shows a community that is unwilling to face the past, choosing to suppress the ‘unpleasant’ areas of history instead of debating difficult issues such as race and oppression in a responsible manner. This gives the impression that it’s ok to teach history with significant blanks, and it’s acceptable to provide students with an incomplete and frankly inaccurate version of the past. Come on Arizona, set an example to your students.

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