Censorship

A Tempest in Arizona

Banned book, "Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years"

TECHNICALLY, the Tucson Unified School District did not ban any books after the Dec. 27, 2011, state court ruling that upheld the Arizona Education Department’s order finding the Mexican American Studies program illegal. But in January, the school district removed from classrooms seven books it said were referenced in the ruling and put them into remote storage. The district, according to Roque Planas of Fox News Latino, also “implemented a series of restrictions ranging from outright prohibition of some books from classrooms, to new approval requirements for supplemental texts, and vague instructions regarding how texts may be taught.”

Former Mexican American Studies teachers have been instructed to not use their former curricula or instruct students to apply perspectives dealing with race, ethnicity, or Mexican American history. So, for example, Shakespeare’s The Tempest can still be taught—but former Mexican American Studies instructors have been advised to avoid discussion of oppression or race (which have long been taught as themes of the play, even in predominantly white classrooms many miles removed from Tucson).

The following seven titles were cited by the Tucson school board as part of a curriculum “in violation of state law”:

1. Critical Race Theory, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
2. 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, edited by Elizabeth Martínez
3. Message to Aztlán, by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles
4. Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, by F. Arturo Rosales
5. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña
6. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire
7. Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow

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The Book Smugglers

Author’s Note: When Arizona House Bill 2281 was used to dismantle the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson public high schools earlier this year, books used in the courses were removed from classrooms—in at least one school as students watched. Most of the titles, but not all, were by Latino writers.

Instead of swallowing their dismay, several students documented what they witnessed through social media. That’s how members of the Houston-based writers’ collective Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say heard about what happened in Tucson. Incensed by the stifling of knowledge, they organized the Librotraficante (literally, “book traffickers”) book caravan. Their goal was to “smuggle” the “contraband” books back into Tucson, and bring attention to what critics contend is a troubling combination of anti-intellectualism and the state’s anti-immigration stance enacted earlier.

Nuestra Palabra members worked with partner organizations along the caravan route to hold press conferences and celebrate Latino arts and culture at several Librotraficante book bashes. In addition to the public events, the five-day journey stopped in six cities, seeding Librotraficante underground libraries along the way. This is a reflection on riding the Librotraficante caravan, which took place in mid-March.

SEEDS. My parents were farm laborers for part of their young adult lives. They did that body-leeching work in the hot Texas sun, picking and hauling cantaloupe, watermelon, onions, and anything else that required a human hand.

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“We Need to Talk” Saudi Arabian Contemporary Art

Saudi Arabia’s first public display of contemporary art opened last weekend in Jeddah.

The National reports that the city was crowded as people visited the raw concrete building that features more than 50 pieces from 22 local artists, under the somewhat provocative title, “We Need to Talk About It.”

The exhibit displays a spectrum of the land’s story – past, present, future. But because the art is open-ended, multi-faceted, and Saudi Arabia is governed by powerful clerics under a version of Sharia law, this public test of authority proves to be a difficult subject.

Replacing Songs with Silence

Victor Wong / Shutterstock
Photo via Victor Wong / Shutterstock

To sing or to die: now I will begin. There’s no force that can silence me. —Pablo Neruda, “Epic Song”

In a world so torn by poverty and war, perhaps music can seem like a secondary concern. But as Christians know so well, music feeds the spirit, comforts the downtrodden, strengthens the weary, and can give words a power they do not possess on paper. Imagine life without your favorite hymn or the song that safely channeled your teenage rebellion, or the anthem of peace or protest that still stirs you. Imagine life without Bach or Handel, or Neil Young, or Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” (dismissed in its day by Time magazine as “a prime piece of musical propaganda”).

Imagine if someone literally took away your song. Wouldn’t you hunger for it like bread?

When a government or powerful religious or ethnic group tries to turn off the music, the stakes are high. Music is another way to hear the news and a means to find common passion between very different peoples. In this way silence, or a restricted diet of state-approved tunes, can diminish us. But the more immediate and sometimes tragic cost is borne by the artists around the globe who have faced intimidation, loss of livelihood, imprisonment, torture, and even death for recording, performing, or distributing their music:

  • South Africa revoked singer Miriam Makeba’s citizenship and right of return after her 1963 testimony about apartheid before the United Nations.

  • Populist Chilean folk/political singer and songwriter Victor Jara was one of several musicians who supported the successful 1970 campaign of Salvador Allende to become president of Chile. When a 1973 military coup overturned the Allende government, Jara was among the thousands of citizens subsequently tortured and executed. His torturers reportedly broke his hands so that he couldn’t play his guitar; his final lyrics, written on scraps of paper during the few days before he was killed, were smuggled out by survivors.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2005
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You Call That Art!?

Art can get messy—even in the absence of elephant dung and Mayor Giuliani. In the process of being something beautiful or profound or disturbing, art can bring together all those things we’re not supposed to talk about in polite company—religion, sex, politics, public funding. This can be a good thing. Or not. Last fall’s imbroglio over the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art had more to do with the cynical manipulation of free publicity (by all involved) than with the public conversation that can appropriately arise from art.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani surely had one eye on the points he might win from upstate Catholic voters for his senatorial campaign, as he attempted to withhold the museum’s city funding in a sudden impassioned defense of the Virgin Mary. And the museum’s director could barely contain his glee over the national publicity he was getting, even as he was decrying the city’s assault on free speech and art as a sacred untouchable.

While some clearly profited from the controversy, the rest of us benefited not at all. The general public is not now better educated on how their tax dollars (whether local or federal) are spent on the arts, nor are they better informed about how to interpret contemporary art or how arts institutions and markets interact.

The nonreligious members of the art world are not now more informed about why people of faith might be offended by certain works. Most artists will not find that the controversy increased public receptivity or comprehension of their life’s work. Most religious people will not find that it increased the public’s receptivity or comprehension of their faith.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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Don't Look Now!

Project Censored listed the Multinational Agreement on Investment’s threat to U.S. sovereignty as the most censored story of the past year. According to alternative media sources, the MAI will give corporations close to the same rights and powers as sovereign nations. Project Censored highlights stories they believe the public should know about that have not hit the mainstream press. Other censored stories include how Monsanto Company’s terminator technology forces farmers to buy seeds year after year; how the U.S. government brings about deaths of Iraqi children through sanctions; and how the U.S. government subverted the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty with its own underground test.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1999
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