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Living with Ghosts


Arizona has been a state for 100 years this month.  And it seems that the state legislature is attempting to set some sort of record in their centennial year.

Earlier this year, the state passed a law (HB 2281) that cuts off up to 10% of the school district’s funding if the school provides any class that ‘promotes the overthrow of the US government, promotes resentment toward a race or class of people, is designed primarily for pupils of one ethnic group, or advocates ethnic solidarity.’ (a quote from the law.)
Shockingly, the one school district in the state that offers classes like this is the Tucson school district, which had a Mexican-American Studies program, integrating Latino history into its curriculum.  They also have a majority Latino student population.
And now that’s gone.  Under threat of losing $15 million dollars of funding from the state, the Tucson school board ended the ethnic studies program on February 1, and boxed up the offending books.  These included The Tempest, by William Shakespeare.  (Nothing gives kids ideas of revolution like ye olde English.)
All this, because the state decided children should not be exposed to any history other than the generic old-dead-white-guy variety. (Also, they really dislike Shakespeare.)
I went to a meeting in Flagstaff last week, about how best to show our support for the beleaguered, book-deprived students of Tucson.  It was heartening to see so many people so fired up.  And I knew going in about the issue, I knew about the legislature, I knew about the books, and the ethnic studies.
But nothing had prepared me for reading down the list of banned books, and seeing so many of the books I had read, and related to, as a teenager.  Two books by Sandra Cisneros, a book by James Baldwin, a book by bell hooks.  (I suppose it’s a small comfort that they appear to be equal-opportunity in their disdain?)
One of the fallacies about ethnic studies programs, or multicultural studies programs, is that, like the bluntly-written law suggests, they break people into ethnic groups.  That they only address people of minority status.  Teaching about Black History Month is only of interest to Black kids.  Teaching Women’s History is only important to girls.  Mexican-American literature is only valuable to Hispanic kids.
Which is ridiculous.
Teaching everyone’s history, everyone’s art, just insures that everyone gets to be a voiced part of the larger story.
I grew up in southeastern Virginia, in a neighborhood with a plantation marker at the end of my block.  History, of all sorts, was under my feet.  The story of the owners and the slaves, the story of the rebels and the Tories, the story of the native peoples and the colonists.  Everyone was already there.  The question was, who was going to get a voice, and who would remain silent.
The more stories that got told, the more stories I learned, the more I realized that I owed a debt to all of these people.  Not just the ones who looked like me, thought like me, or spoke like me.  My life, my world had been affected in some way by all of these diverse people: the ones who left powerful legacies, and the ones who died nameless.  All the little histories that get stuck in the margins were really bound up in the big, ‘master narrative’ of American history we like to tell.  You can’t tell one without the others.  They’re inter-dependent.
On Ash Wednesday, we pray the Litany for Penitence, which makes a point of talking about our interdependence, both on creation, and on other people.  We ask forgiveness for our abuse of creation, our prejudice toward others, and our exploitation of other people.  (Actually, read the litany sometime in the BCP.  It’s virtually all about what we’ve done to other people.)  As a rule, we tend to really hate dwelling on that part, because we like to believe that we are Individuals! (Complete with nifty Boot-Strap Lifting action!) We are all John Wayne all over here, rugged and needing no one, only casually strolling in to save the day*.
But this is not the case.  We’re social creatures, bound one to another.  We’re stuck together, all of us.  Your story is my story, and vice versa.  And to silence either one of us is to disfigure the story beyond telling.
So, for the next while, I’ll be working on the (unofficially-dubbed) “Flagstaff <3s Tucson” project, bringing attention and support to the banned ethnic studies programs in Arizona.  Call it a Lenten side-project.  I shall keep the blog updated as things progress.
In the meantime, I ask your prayers/thoughts for the kids down in Tucson and for all of us in Arizona.
* and building an airport, putting our name on it, not having any feelings….I’ll stop now.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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