Gary Younge Guardian/UK 1 February 2012
"Every human being at every stage of history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society," writes the late, renowned historian EH Carr, in "Society and Individual" from What is History?. "Both language and environment help to determine the character of his thought; his earliest ideas come to him from others. The individual apart from society would be both speechless and mindless."
That does not entitle people to their own facts. But if history were simply a collection of facts, we could get computers to do it. It's not. The historian's task is to sift, arrange, prioritise and contextualise those facts to produce a narrative that is not just accurate but plausible, clear and intelligent. "The facts speak only when the historian calls on them," argued Carr, in another essay, "The Historian and his Facts", almost 50 years ago. "It is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context … It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar's crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all."
Black History Month, which begins today in the US, gives us all a chance to rescue stories that have been discarded, correct stories that have been mistold and elevate stories that have been downplayed. Recent events in Tucson, Arizona pose a direct threat to the very logic on which Black History Month now stands. The Tucson Unified School District, where 60% of the students are Latino, will today be forced to shut down its Mexican American studies program or lose as much as $14m of funding from Arizona state. A few weeks ago, officials went into schools and "confiscated" seven books from the classrooms deemed to promote "ethnic resentment". Among them were several classics including Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 years, by Bill Bigelow.
"This is a book that has sold over 300,000 copies and is used in school districts from Anchorage to Atlanta, and from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine," Bigelow told the New York Daily News. "It offers teaching strategies and readings teachers can use to help students think about the perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum … Arizona's state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal, who has championed the book banning and the abolition of Mexican American studies in Tucson, argues the curriculum fosters "ethnic resentment" and advocates "racial solidarity". "What we want to do is to create a society in which everybody is working for a better tomorrow," he said.
The other key supporter of the ban, Arizona attorney general Tom Horne, insists the problem with Mexican American studies is that discrimination is a "downer". "We should be teaching these kids that this is the land of opportunity and that if they work hard they can achieve their dreams," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper recently. "Not teach them the downer that they're oppressed and that they can't get anywhere and they should be angry against the government and angry against the nation."
Social justice advocates have launched a teach-in campaign, "No History is Illegal", starting today to protest the measure. They should have our full support. One of the most salient lessons of black American history is the effectiveness of solidarity. Arizona could set a dangerous precedent that might be used against women's studies, queer studies and, yes, Black History Month. These measures seek not to teach history but to preach nationalist mythology, aimed at raising not so much open-minded critical thinkers as blind patriots.
"One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted or skimmed over," argued African American civil rights champion and intellectual WEB Dubois. "We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner … and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell us the truth."