Sunday, February 26, 2012

Behind the Teach-In About Tucson: Washington and Lee Professors Respond to Censorship

by Deborah A. Miranda
Associate Professor, English
Washington and Lee University
At the end of January, I felt far from my friends, fellow authors, professors and teachers in Arizona, when the news broke:  the State of Tucson had shut down the much-lauded Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District mid-semester; targeting and removing books from classrooms based on the racial and/or political perspective of the authors.  Arizona officials stated that these books cause "resentment toward a race or class of people" - meaning, Caucasians - and "aroused emotion" in Mexican-American students.  Many Mexican-American and Native American authored books are on the list, but so are texts like The Tempest and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”  Isn't good literature supposed to arouse emotion in the reader?  Isn’t it one of the few ways we have of experiencing different perspectives? 
Regina Mills (’09), now teaching ninth grade in Arizona, wrote to me, "We have been banned from teaching our kids to feel empowered in a world where most issues stem from generations of powerlessness." Regina’s comment highlights the real issue:  banned books tell truths that are often difficult for us to hear, but the MAS Program worked because it made critical thinkers out of students (all of whom, irrespective of ethnicity, scored significantly higher on achievement tests after taking the classes).  
Several community responses arose at once; “No History is Illegal”  organized a month-long Teach-In About Tucson, set to begin February 1.  Seeking a way to engage rather than watch from a distance, I composed an email to my colleagues that included links to several informative websites, including the “Librotraficante” movement headed by Tony Diaz, and  suggesting that we take part in the Teach-In by incorporating a lesson about Tucson into our individual classrooms. 
I was overwhelmed by the immediate and savvy responses from my busy colleagues.
Washington and Lee students (and their parents) choose our university because they know our faculty is made up of professors highly skilled in teaching, scholarship and service – and what my colleagues told me in email after email is that we faculty honed our skills on book lists that would make TUSD's hair stand on end, books that taught us critical thinking skills and lit the spark in us that we pass on to W&L students.  

Professor of Romance Languages and Program Head of Latin American and Caribbean Studies Jeff Barnett wrote, “Our assigned reading for the [Feb. 1st] class by chance is the Victoria Lena Manyarrows ‘Confronting and Surpassing the Legacy of Columbus’—an example of (contra)banned literature… On the night of Feb 1st, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies capstone course meets at 6:30.   I would be happy if anyone wished to join us in the seminar that evening to participate in the discussion … Reading Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America:  A History Of Chicanos was one of the formative experiences of my undergraduate education and training for LACS.  Now, of course, it’s one of the seminal works that has been banned.”

Robin LeBlanc, from the Politics Department, wrote to ask for excerpts of banned literature, and I sent out several short pieces from Woman Hollering Creek, by Sandra Cisneros.  Robin crafted her lesson plan and shared a story about how close Arizona is to W&L:  “I'll be opening POL 255 Gender and Politics with a short reading from Freire, followed by a discussion of our regular syllabus assignment about Latinas in politics, and a reading from the Cisneros stories Deborah shared. Yesterday afternoon I was approached by a student I had not yet met and who described himself as a ‘Mexican American.’ He said he had overheard me describe the Arizona situation to my East Asia students yesterday and that he had been wondering how the Washington and Lee Community would respond to the issue. He said he was glad to hear what he described as my "fair" treatment of the issue; he said he had met students in California who had fled Arizona because of its politics. He had not yet heard any faculty mention the Arizona situation. The encounter reminded me of how important it is to let our students know that we do care about their multiple perspectives, and what a good chance this is to do that.” 

Suzanne Keen, Chair of English, reported after teaching her class on February 1, “My students in English 232 The Novel gasped when I held up AZ banned book, Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Five of them read it last semester.  They explained to the others Freire's contribution to a pedagogy emphasizing dialogue and discussion over lecture. Since we are reading and discussing Xiaolu Guo, a filmmaker and novelist from the People's Republic of China, a discussion of book banning and the fragility of our American liberties fit right in.” 

Jim Kahn, Professor of Economics and Director of the Environmental Studies Program, wrote that he planned “to use the situation in Arizona when I teach global warming and the assault on science associated with global warming (and environment change in general). I will use the situation in Arizona to help place the "denial" of global climate change in a context of a society that prefers to remain ignorant of the book banning is in some ways analogous to the State Attorney General of Virginia trying to prosecute climate scientists who worked at UVa.” 

“I can also talk about the current issues in Arizona in my class,” Romance Language Professor Monica Botta contributed, “Tomorrow in my seminar we are going to examine how ‘selective’ is Sarmiento (1811-1888) when he constructs a discourse of his past by only mentioning  his ‘criollo’ ancestors in ‘Recuerdos de provincia.’”

Gwyn Campbell, Spanish Professor, shared that she “did bring the subject up to the other classes today, because it is so appalling, and it dovetailed with the issues of censorship, in the one class, and issues related to the ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’ in the other.” 

“I don't teach tomorrow,” stated Monica Gonzalez, also from Romance Languages, “but on Thursday I will be mentioning this in my two classes. Also, in my 240 Latin American Literature class, I am teaching Andrés Bello's ‘El castellano en América’ (‘Spanish Language in America’), a text written in 1847 that refers to the use of Spanish language by the new republics in Latin America. If you want to join me in the class to ‘re-read’ this text from the perspective of the current U.S. legislation towards hispanic immigrants, you are more than welcome!”

“My current course on ‘Ralph Ellison and the Civil Rights Movement’ meets Tu/Th, so we entered into this issue today and had a great discussion,” Marc Conner, English and Head of the African American Studies Program, told us, “About ¼ of the students knew about it, though two of them are in Deborah’s creative writing course so they have clearly been grappling with this.  Some were stunned that such things are happening today.  It led to a fine discussion of the complexity of American cultural experience, and the dangers of flattening that complexity. —it’s had a real purchase on what we’re teaching and talking about.”

“I will participate in the teach-in tomorrow, making this issue central to my ‘insider/outsider’ WRIT 100,” English professor Michael Crowley decided, “And I'll see if I can't fold it in to my ‘monsters’ class on Thursday too -- I could make several connections to our reading of Frankenstein...”

“I plan to incorporate it into my class for Wed in Poverty 101,” Howard Pickett reported from the Shepherd Poverty Program, and Theresa Braunschneider of English looked forward to “discussing the Tucson developments today in my seemingly innocent Brit lit class -- which, I hope, is actually fomenting ‘resentment’ every day by thinking critically about the history of the Atlantic slave trade and the British colonial imagination (we even did a critical reading of Columbus on the first day of class!).”

“I've been discussing this whole situation with my Cowboys and Indians class as it has been developing,” English professor and Director of the Writing Center, Kary Smout, commented, and Professor of Spanish Ellen Mayock responded, “This is a great call-to-arms… I'm still on sabbatical and so don't have classes this term, but I think I'll attend Jeff's on Wednesday evening in a show of solidarity.  I absolutely love the term librotraficante--great to see trafficking going the right way for once!” –

The Philosophy Department’s Florentein Verhage found great inspiration in the intersections between her Phil395 work of the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty  and Gloria Anzaldua, saying, “we have been reading about lived experience and the lived-body: the body as pivot, hinge and cross-road between nature, culture, geography, biology, self and other. He speaks of a body as ‘being in and toward the world’, as being of the world, as open to the world. In that context I will have my students read short excerpts of Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera  and discuss the recent developments in Tuscon. Anzaldua’s writing is simply beautiful. In it I read passion, strength, love, rage, pain, confusion, ambiguity, power, hope, openness, but nowhere in this text I find hate.” 

Floretein’s colleague, Melina Bell, also found the Teach-in experience profoundly useful, reporting that “We had a really excellent discussion in class about why we need ethnic studies and to have different points of view included in the curriculum.  Most students admitted that they did not 'think about' the way history is told from a subjective point of view, rather than being mere 'facts.'  We addressed why we need Mexican American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies and African American Studies, but not 'Caucasian Studies' or 'Men in Technology and Science.'  I saw a lot of lightbulbs turn on over their heads.  Thanks for sending all those great links (some of which I required them to read/watch) and for enriching my class and this campus with an unusually strong burst of activism for justice.”

Not surprisingly, poetry also lent itself well to this teach-in topic, wrote Lesley Wheeler:  “My seminar on 21stc poetry was finishing up several weeks of reading about the aftermath of Katrina as documented by poets Cynthia Hogue, Nicole Cooley, Natasha Trethewey, and others. They were just finishing Trethewey’s BEYOND KATRINA: A MEDITATION ON THE MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST. All of these books concern the relevance of race to U.S. history and contemporary culture and politics, and they’re all working through whatever the social role of literature might be. None of them have been banned in Tucson or elsewhere, to my knowledge, but the book banning intersected in several ways with what we’d been discussing, so we spent the first half of Wednesday’s session considering it. I showed them the list and we talked about whether a book should ever be banned from a high school curriculum (they made varied arguments), books that had offended or excited us, and whether there was such a thing as a good work of literature without an implicit agenda (we couldn’t think of any). “

And so the Teach-In About Tucson took place at Washington and Lee in English and American Literature, Environmental Studies, Sociology, Latin American Literature, Politics, Writing 100, Poverty, Philosophy and Spanish classes.  English Professor Chris Gavaler and Rod Smith, editor of The Shenandoah Review, both published excellent blogs addressing the situation.

We were supported by our Leyburn Library colleagues, as well:  Librarian Yolanda Merrill created a “Banned Book” display, and Librarian Dick Grefe ordered a handful of banned books we didn’t already own to round out the Leyburn collection – reminding us all, what’s a revolution without the librarians?

And this Teach-In was revolutionary.  The messages this Teach-in carried made clear our faculty’s profound engagement with the critical thinking crucial to education.  If we professors came to our classrooms without having read those banned books, W&L students’ education would be sadly lacking.  The closing of MAS and removal of books in Tucson must be devastating for educators there who have dedicated their lives to teaching students with a critical pedagogy of empowerment.

W &L professors found ourselves recharged and rededicated to our vocations by the February 1st Teach-In About Tucson.  A sense of alliance came out of our participation, a reminder that every day that we teach what we love, Arizona is not so far away.   I am grateful to the intellectual, compassionate, critical thinkers who surround me at Washington and Lee, and awed by their willingness to participate in a Teach-In on such short notice, with such brilliant results.  Harlan Beckley, Director of the Shepherd Poverty Program here, is currently working on bringing together a group of students for an on-going discussion of the issues in Tucson and has asked for my help; I’m very hopeful that a whole new area of study and activism is opening up for students in Lexington, and look forward to being a part of it.

As I finish writing this blog, it is Sunday, February 26th.  The Librotraficante Caravan, “Book Traffickers” smuggling banned “wet books” back into Arizona, is prepping for an amazing march to Arizona with banned books and banned authors. They plan to arrive in Tucson on March 16th.  Funded by various banned book authors and supporters, Librotraficante literally walks the walk.  I feel that, thanks to our participation in the Teach-In, we are walking with them in spirit; allows us to donate financially as well – yes, it takes money to fight censorship. 

As we near the one month anniversary of our Teach-In, I will update my students about the events in Tucson, and urge my colleagues to continue this real-life exercise in critical thinking. 

Thank you, colleagues. 

For comprehensive coverage of the Tucson events, see Debbie Reese's AICL Blog 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Taking with me the land" - Place, Self, Poetry

“Taking with me the land.” – Gloria Anzaldua

Someone once said that human beings are simply mobile containers designed by water in order to move itself from place to place.  I like that image of us as walking water; it makes sense, since most of the human body is made up of H2O, and the surface of earth herself is about 74% water. Are we simply extensions of the earth, moving about independently, yet connected by the tether, or umbilical cord, of our shared composition?  Of course, this analogy immediately presumes the earth as our mother, our origin, our parent, and we her wandering (and often wayward) offspring.

In one of my prose poems, "Lullabye," I try to imagine how being made of mostly water means having a deep relationship with the sea.


We belong to the sea.  We are salt water walking on the land in soft containers called flesh.  Chloride, sodium, sulfate swim in our veins, warm and elemental.  Our bodies sway and swell in response to the tides of our oldest memory.  The moon pulls the sea, the sea pulls us.  So we are the sea, walking on two legs far away from the birthing waters.  We travel wide plains, rest awhile beside icy streams, make shelters out of snow.  Always, we seek water, wherever we go, look for lost relatives, pieces of our selves.  We smell wetness beneath rock; we raise our faces to gray skies, mouths open; we welcome the fat drops with our thirst.  We belong to the sea, we bear her dark green wishes and slippery strands of thought.  Magnesium, calcium, potassium slide through our veins.  We make love to each other, oceans aching to reunite; homesick, we ease our isolation with each other’s moist mouths, secret seeps, lonely seas meeting on our slick skins.  We belong to the sea: she will make her claim on us again one day, demand our return, and this long separation will come to an end.  She will ask us for her copper, her cobalt, her molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, iron, bicarbonate, bromide, strontium.  We will leave our flesh behind us on the shore, husks that dry and turn to dust.  We will slip back into the sea like a child going home, like boron to selenium, like blood finds its way back to blood. 

Fragments of any place we live on for an extended period of time are transmitted into our flesh, blood, bones and teeth in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and these become the architecture that contains us.  Our bodies record our relationship with place in several beautiful ways.Within that formula of H2O, we must remember that the mass of our human bodies is made up mostly of oxygen.

Our bones, for example, soak up the elements around us to renew themselves about every ten years; the isotopic oxygen ratios in the bone show the “signature” of where you’ve been.  It’s a little like having your dog or cat “chipped” – a veterinarian with a scanner can tell at a glance where your pet belongs if it has somehow wandered off.

And our teeth are even better at chronicling our connection to the planet. Unlike bone, adult teeth never rebuild themselves; the elements present when they are initially formed stay in them for life, and so our teeth preserve the precise region in which we were born and raised.  When Gloria Anzaldua says she travels from her homeplace “taking with me the land,” she isn’t speaking metaphorically.  We carry particles from the place of our emergence deep in our bodies wherever we go, all of our lives.

Even our hair, whose growth is largely determined by the water we drink, tells the more recent stories.  We drink water filtered through the geology of the place we live; each region’s water has its own unique oxygen isotope, and that geographic pattern braids itself into our hair as it grows.

All of this science is interesting to me not because of what it reveals, but because of what it confirms:  the indigenous world view that human beings are not separate from the earth, from land and water but instead extensions of Earth.  Different, yes; separate, no.  The Earth is a living entity from which we are created through a process both pragmatic and mysterious.  This is, I think, often interpreted as indigenous spirituality or religion, but a more accurate description might be that it is a world view, a way of ordering the world, the core of indigenous values, knowledge and ethics. 

The diversity of indigenous cultures on the North American continent alone is staggering, yet this perception of human connection to the planet, to the earth, may be the one universal, pan-Indian commonality.  The complex, intimate relationship between human and planet plays out in many ways through the images within indigenous poetry. 

Ecological or eco-poetry is often defined as, ultimately, the loss of the individual self in favor of a network of inter-connected ecologies.  Yet Native poetry celebrates all the same markers of humanity that other poetry does – falling in love, death, sensory and sensual experiences, grief, celebration, relationship.  A Native world view allows for the difference between self and the elements that form us, but does not deny the deep connections between self and those same elements.  What if we ARE Place?

Being able to hold both of these thoughts at once in one’s mind, and in one’s daily actions, is the work of thousands of years of indigenous experience.  When North American was colonized by European powers, that world view took a severe beating; in many cases, whole tribes whose lives exemplified this way of knowing were killed, and in many more tribes, the bodies lived on without knowledge of these connections between earth and self.   Many of us, ourselves, have forgotten how to be indigenous.

My strong tribal identity is tied to a specific place, California, and even more strongly to the Monterey Bay and Santa Barbara areas, where my grandparents were from.  Over and over, my poems walk the landscape and geography of home, as if to visit with it, memorize it, talk with it.  It seems so natural to me that I was surprised when my colleague Lesley said, “Place is kind of what you DO” – but immediately, that felt true.  I think I’ve been re-learning how to be indigenous all of my life. 

Perhaps this is where my poetic obsession with place comes from: my teeth; my bones.  I used to be so embarrassed by my crooked “Indian” teeth, the result of an over-crowded mouth and poor dental care as a kid.  Now I think of my teeth as my secret strength, a safe-deposit box, where I carry the essence of my homeland with me, always.  In "Mnemonic," I think about what remains with us in our "bone memory" even as we travel far from our birthplaces.  

I'd love to hear what other people/poets/writers/Indians are thinking about when they think of place and their relationship to it.  

This essay owes inspiration to Lesley Wheeler's handout on Poetry of Place, as well as a blog by Amelia Montes 


I was born on the San Andreas Fault.  I carry
that promise of violence and destruction down
the center of my body like a zig-zag of lightning.

My father was born there, my mother too,
all my brothers and sisters.  Sometimes I think
that’s the only thing we still have in common:

our emergence on the edge of a rippling continent
where the sun goes down over warm waters;
born in the desert’s shadow, between

mountains and sea.  Some of us got into cars,
drove north on long interstate freeways.
Some of us stayed not twenty miles

from our birthplace, bound by love or hate
or fear, unable to imagine a sunrise
without palm trees – or sun.  Some of us

died, turned to dust inside incinerators
built for human flesh; our ashes tucked
in a niche at Inglewood or scattered by children

in the green currents at Tuolumne.  Some
of us no longer speak to one another, silent
as rusty knives; others learn old languages,

make new songs out of scraps.  A few
souls have traveled too far, can never
come back.  Others haven’t fled far enough.

Some of us journey only in motes of dust
shining above the fractured chasms of earth. 
And some of us return in solitary dreams

to sacred places we could not find
in this lifetime.  Today, I wind
a string of shells around my wrist

four times, a bracelet strung so I can bear
the beauty of my homeland with me
wherever I go.  The sharp edges bite

my skin, rattle soft as pebbles when I write
these words.  Abalone hangs from my neck:
polished shards of oceanic memory.

I was born on the San Andreas Fault.
I carry that rattlesnake in my spine, feel
the plates of a restless continent grind

and shift from tailbone to skull, a tectonic
rosary that keeps coming unstrung, keeps
me tied to the plundered bones of this place.

by Deborah A. Miranda