Ethnic Studies, MLK & Great Men – The Feminist Wire

Ethnic Studies, MLK & Great Men

In one of the first scenes of the 2006 film Walkout, the day-glo radiance of L.A. suffuses a group of Lincoln High School seniors discussing their future prospects.  It is 1968, and most of them have been told by their school guidance counselor that secretarial or vocational school is their best bet after graduation.  Walkout is a flawed, yet rousing dramatization of the “Chicano Blowouts” of the late 1960s, a series of student-led anti-racist protests in East Los Angeles schools that are routinely omitted from mainstream portraits of the social upheaval of the civil rights era.  Watching the film with a rapt group of high school students this past week reinforced the travesty of the recent suspension of Mexican American Studies in Tucson, Arizona.

The suspension is part of broader restrictions on Ethnic Studies programs that supposedly foment the “overthrow of the U.S. government” and “resentment” against other racial groups.  Forty four years later, the “back-in-the-day” scenarios the Lincoln students faced are nakedly relevant to black and brown students nationwide; textbooks with no Latino historical figures, minimal access to college preparation classes, low college-going rates, high drop-out rates, a school-to-prison pipeline, and a yawning economic gap between the sun-kissed neighborhoods of the tony white Westside and their own.

What resonated most strongly with my students was the divide between the models of youth resistance they saw on the screen and the narrative of invisibility rammed down their throats in overcrowded classrooms day after day where they learn that white people, and a few exceptional individuals of color, generally male, made history.  For many of them, civil rights activism is something that outsized icons like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks “did” long ago in a galaxy far far away.  In most K-12 classrooms there is no engagement with King’s radical stance on capitalism, the American war machine and Western imperialism, nor contextualization of Parks’ and the female-led Montgomery bus boycott’s significance for women’s liberation.

For my predominantly female class, learning about teenaged civil rights activists like Claudette Colvin and former Lincoln High organizer Paula Crisostomo was eye-opening, not only because of the revelation that teenaged young women were on the frontlines, but because of their battles with sexism and misogyny.  In 1955, the fifteen year-old Colvin preceded Parks in refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated Montgomery bus.  On the way to the police station white officers reportedly took turns guessing her bra size.  After her arrest, Colvin was deemed to be an unsuitable civil rights role model because she was dark-skinned, working class, and had become pregnant by an older man.  As a leader of one of the most important educational equity protests in Los Angeles, Crisostomo was at the epicenter of an essentially nationalist Chicano movement that viewed sexism as a marginal concern. In her book Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles, researcher Laura Pulido notes that, “Most nationalisms are fundamentally masculinist projects predicated on redeeming the male subject.”

Sexism in K-12 education and the nationalist ethos of many social movements of color have precluded the inclusion of women of color feminism in social science curricula.  As my twelfth grade students prepare for the next phase of their lives, many of them express outrage over “just having learned” that women like them, from communities like theirs, organized against white supremacist patriarchal systems of so-called democratic “opportunity.” They are better able to make connections between the constant sexual harassment that they experience and the tokenization of women of color in American history. Stoking this rage toward critical consciousness and politicization is why K-12 Ethnic Studies based on intersectionality has enduring academic and intellectual value.  It is as much a part of King’s and Parks’ legacies as mainstream public education’s “I Have a Dream” bromides.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project and author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.