By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
What first caught my eye was that teachers in the Tucson Unified School District were ordered to stop using a book in which I have an essay. The book, Rethinking Columbus, has been an important source of expanded understanding of the colonization of the Western Hemisphere. Challenging many of the myths surrounding the arrival of European settlers, Rethinking Columbus pays attention to the victims of the hemispheric invasion that began in the 1500s.
If banning a book was bad enough, it must be understood in the context of decisions made in Arizona to ban Mexican American Studies. These are the sorts of steps being undertaken by right-wing activists who have infiltrated school boards around the country. Their aim is to shut down any comprehensive examination of history and the sciences and, instead, replace them with myths.
Terminating the teaching of Mexican American Studies, particularly in a state that prior to 1848 was part of Mexico, is not only idiotic from the standpoint of scholarship, but is insulting to Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
Using disingenuous suggestions that so-called ethnic studies programs are divisive, right-wing ideologues seek to obliterate from our education programs any discussion of the crimes associated with the founding of the United States, crimes such as slavery, genocide and the annexation of northern Mexico. Instead they want our children to believe that North America was destined by God’s will to be settled and conquered by Europeans. Slavery and genocide in that myth were collateral damage.
What is at stake is not simply the banning of certain education programs or the banning of a book. What is really going on here is the shutting down of any debate. History is not the reciting of facts. History always involves contention between different analyses or “takes” on a series of events. As such, which facts are included or excluded from history reflects the basic message that someone wishes to convey.
If you want to pretend that northern Mexico (currently the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado) simply fell into the hands of Euro-American settlers, then little facts, such as that the USA provoked a war with Mexico in 1846 becomes very inconvenient. If you want to pretend that there was no one on this land except, perhaps, a few Indian tribes, then it also becomes inconvenient to discuss the land claims that Mexican Americans/Chicanos have in the Southwest that frequently date back to the 1500s, not to mention the land that was occupied by significant numbers of Native Americans.
All of this is to say that history remains not only important but a critical site of struggle. And what is happening to Chicanos/Mexican Americans in Arizona today could just as easily happen to African Americans in any number of states tomorrow. Think about this as Black History Month begins.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co- author of Solidarity Divided. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.