June 29, 2017
Banned books, banned curricula, and how white people in Arizona get to decide what’s American and what’s not
by Peter Clark
In James Baldwin’s essay “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” collected in The Fire Next Time, he writes:
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.
According to the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), these words—and the whole book—are inappropriate for students. Specifically, having this book taught in a classroom would violate HB 2281, a 2010 Arizona law that makes it illegal to “advocate ethnic solidarity.” The law further prohibits materials that:
- promote the overthrow of the United States government.
- promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
- are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
When the law passed in 2010, the TUSD proactively cleansed course curricula of books by Rudolfo Anaya, (ahem, Pulitzer Prize winner) Junot Díaz, (ahem, Pulitzer finalist) Luís Alberto Urrea, Sherman Alexie, and eighty others.
In the seven years since, only one school district in the entire state has caught the ire of public officials: TUSD. To serve their majority Latino population, teachers there developed materials that focused on aspects of the students’ backgrounds that would be more engaging — for instance, reading The Tempest alongside writings from Che Guevara. Naturally, Tom Horne, the white man who happened to be the Attorney General of Arizona at the time, thought the program was “propagandizing and brainwashing.” Maya L. Kapoor of High Country News reported what happened next:
Established in 1998, the district’s MAS [Mexican-American Studies] program included courses ranging from Latino literature to studio arts. More than 10 years after creating MAS, TUSD expanded the program to help the district meet an ongoing federally enforced desegregation decree dating back to the 1970s.
Faced with losing millions of dollars in state funding, TUSD stopped the MAS program in February of 2012. This meant, at times, going into classes and confiscating books in front of students.
Perhaps the saddest part of all is that it was working. Students in this program were performing better on standardized tests and had higher graduation rates compared to peers not in the program. It was so successful, in fact, that Curtis Acosta and Tony Diaz, two of the teachers behind MAS curricula, are taking it around the country to help students in other areas, too.
Teachers, parents, and students are still embroiled in a court battle over this law, which is currently back in US District Court. They have already secured a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that removing books from classrooms violates students’ constitutional free speech rights, but now they have to duke it out again over the MAS curriculum, with Arizona students’ academic liberty hanging in the balance.
When Curtis Acosta was teaching MAS, he started each day with this students by reciting a portion of Luis Valdez’s poem Pensamiento Serpentino for his class…
Tú eres mi otro yo (You are my other me)
Si te hago daño a ti (If I hurt you)
Me hago daño a mí mismo (I hurt myself the same)
Sí te amo y respeto (If I love and respect you)
Me amo y respeto yo (I love and respect myself)
Now if only the legislators and public officials would read it.
One final note: John Huppenthal, another white man who voted for HB 2281 as a state senator and later implemented it as Arizona’s Superintendant of Public Instruction, would not read this poem because he vehemently believes that only English should be spoken in the United States. In the words of a co-worker, how did all these loons settle on Arizona?
Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.