Sunday, January 22, 2012

American Apartheid?

A friend of mine--Jana Harcharek, Director of Iñupiat Education for the North Slope Borough School District--sent me a link about the affront to education that's taking place in Arizona:

American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL): Teaching critical thinking in Arizona: NOT ALLOWED

"This makes me especially grateful for the work we are doing with the Iñupiaq Learning Framework," Jana wrote. Me too. I'm president of the North Slope Borough School District Board of Education and I'm proud to say that unlike the school district in Arizona, which is shutting down its Mexican American Studies Program, we are not only teaching Iñupiaq Studies, we are creating a framework that will make "Iñupiaq studies" an integral part of academics on all levels. Unlike Tucson, Arizona, which is apparently afraid to teach alternative versions of history, we are actively creating materials that tell history from an Iñupiaq perspective.

I had been following this story on Debbie Reese's blog before Jana emailed me and I was, and am, shocked. Sherman Alexie referred to it as American Apartheid. I think that pretty well sums it up.

Aside from the obvious racism, aside from the fact that the powers that be in Arizona didn't care that the program was creating academic success among its Latino students, aside from the fact that this is the kind of thing that is gutting our educational system and sapping us of our strengths--aside from all of this, I am deeply disturbed about what it says about us as a country. This is not a version of America we can be proud of. This is not the land of the free; it's the land of the oppressors and the oppressed. This is a group of people who hold the balance of power saying, "our story is the right story and all other stories will be suppressed." Whatever ugly things students in that program may have been learning about American history, these things have just been validated.

It is such a serious affront to the truths we claim to hold as self-evident that it should be front page news, nationwide. Sadly, it is not.

I know this is a buzz phrase, but honestly, it makes me think of Nazi Germany.

Which in turn makes me think of my friend Ellen Levine's book Darkness over Denmark about the Danish resistance during World War II.

And in thinking of Ellen's book makes me want to share this, from the book's wonderful introduction:
Something unusual happened in Denmark during World War II: Hitler's plans to kill the Danish Jews failed. Like many American Jews, I grew up hearing stories of how Denmark saved its Jews. That Denmark chose to protect its Jews was an astonishing and extraordinary act. What happened, and why did it happen in Denmark and nowhere else?
Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century English political philosopher and member of Parliament, wrote, "The one condition necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." I believe that this is the essence of this story. Evil did not triumph in Denmark because most Danes simply refused to allow it.
 There were "good people" in countries throughout Europe who helped Jews during the Nazi period. But many more, when faced with the arrest and murder of their Jewish neighbors, said, "What could we do?" For Danes, one additional word made all the difference: "What else could we do?"
This is how I feel about the oppression happening in Arizona. One of the students, in fact, said that watching them box up those books and remove them from classrooms--which they did in the middle of class--was like looking at what had happened in Nazi Germany. We can't all just say, oh well, Arizona's a long way off and it's only one school district, only a small group of students, only one program.

No, I don't know what to do about it, either;  I'm just a writer. But as they say, the pen is mightier than the sword. And it must be true, too. Those people down there in Arizona appear to be mighty afraid of a few words in a few books. They must see those books as truly dangerous. Those books must be subversive. They are literally tearing books out of the hands of students. They are actually monitoring classrooms to make sure teachers don't secretly continue teaching those books. Those books must truly be powerful.

We must keep writing, we must keep reading and we must keep teaching those books.

In fact I'm going to put a few of them on the syllabus of the class I teach at Ilisagvik College. We're a tribal college and the Tucson Unified School District can't touch us.*

I'm also ordering a few more of those books for myself. Matt de la Pena's Mexican White Boy is about a boy negotiating the line between being Mexican and being white--This could be the story of my own kids, negotiating the line between being white and being Iñupiaq. It's time I read it....

That's what I'm doing. It's a start. What are the rest of you doing?

***Added 1/24: The decision to shut down the MAS program and pull books from classrooms has it's roots in the Arizona state legislature, which threatened to pull a significant amount of money from the district if Tuscon did not comply to their reading of the law.  What would I have done? In our district 75% of our budget goes to personnel. If we faced that kind of cut, we would have to make serious cuts to our teaching staff. I would challenge the state's interpretation of the law and seek an injunction.

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