Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Amnesia on Memorial Day

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

"¿Caíste?" she asked. Have you fallen? I had a vision of myself on a re-enactment battlefield dramatically clutching my saber-wounded gut as I fell to the ground, though all my mother-in-law wants to know, really, is if I've finally gotten sick like my girlfriend.

Yep. Brought low by the enemy, bacteria, I've gone completely reptilian. There's no yesterday or tomorrow. The size of the world's shrunk to my aching bones and the phlegm pooling in my lungs. I see nothing past the limits of my own thick skin. Like Republican Governor Jan Brewer who's been feverishly signing bills shrinking Arizona's immense and rich cultural history into the size of an Anglo pea.

First it was the law indiscriminately attacking all Hispanics as potential illegals no matter if their family was in the region centuries before it was American territory, and the closest they came to fluency in Spanish was a mastery of the Taco Bell menu.

Now, she's banning English teachers with foreign accents, and squashing ethnic studies programs because they ostensibly "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

Arizona state schools chief Tom Horne, and longtime advocate for the anti-ethnic studies bill, especially hates the Tucson Unified School District program which offers courses specializing in African-American, Mexican-American and Native-American studies which he claims makes students resent a particular race. "It's just like the old South, and it's long past time that we prohibited it." The old South? I thought he was doing everything in his power to bring it back.

He's not entirely wrong to believe these kinds of programs can lead students to resentment. After all, "studies" of any kind just point to the bigotry that made them necessary in the first place, though eliminating them won't do much to nurture unity and respect. I'm pretty sure Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón didn't take even one course in Hispanic Studies before she fired into the U.S. Congress. The actual facts of American colonialism were enough. Likewise, Malcolm X didn't need to enroll at Stillman College to know black folk were getting screwed, and have an appropriately angry response.

As for me, I only have to spend an hour or two reading the latest example of straight people battering queers for sport, and erasing LGBT people and queer accomplishments from our mutual history to pass way beyond resentment to fury. Alone, the story of Harvey Milk could incite to violence. Perhaps queer studies should be banned as well.

For domestic tranquility, Arizona should follow the Texas example and purge curriculums of any hint that there was ever prejudice or inequalities in this country, and even that differences exist at all. Proposed revisions passed just a couple of days ago in Texas eliminate slavery from American history, rename the slave trade the "Atlantic triangular trade," and establish that the civil war was purely about states' rights.

The black civil rights movement has been minimized, along with activists Susan B. Anthony and Upton Sinclair because if you erase militants, you erase the injustice that inspired them. And anybody following in their footsteps can be dismissed as liberal atheist nuts. "Slavery wasn't that bad or widespread" you could say. Or "Women were magnanimously given the vote when they were ready for it."

With all that going into the crapper, what is it Texans want more of? Davy Crockett, apparently. The King of Tennessee's Wild Frontier. At least until he bit the dust at the Alamo when Mexico was trying to reclaim territory that had just been theirs.

Good luck with that, is all I can say to the great states of Texas and Arizona. You can remember the Alamo all you want, but this victorious effort to shrink culture, and erase histories shaped by Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans into something determined almost solely by whites is more than anything a sign of your imminent demise, the myopia of sickness that in some ways harms white students most of all. Because in this modern world in which diversity and intellectual flexibility is the name of the game, they're the least likely to know there are multiple histories out there, whether the school board admits it or not.

As we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, remembering dead patriots, and lost relatives, perhaps we should mourn memory itself which in growing expanses of our country has been distorted into a game of wishful thinking and intentional amnesia. If historians are increasingly the heroes in the battlegrounds for civil rights, we will have to accept that the schoolyard is as important as the streets or our courts.

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