Prison House of Textbook History

Prison House of Textbook History May 27, 2013

This guest post is excerpted from Sikivu Hutchinson’s Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels:

In all my years of post-Jim Crow public education no one ever handed me a book written by a black woman and said that what she wrote is universal truth. I was never told that so-called civilizations rose and fell on the power of her words, or that entire belief systems sprung from her ideas. I was never taught that the world’s greatest intellectuals worked plantations, were herded onto reservations, or traveled every day from barrios and “ghettoes” to keep white people’s children. Intellectuals and philosophers—serious thinkers—were white men, with no need for a living wage job. They did not ride public buses or clean houses or go to schools where stop-and-frisk was a routine practice. They did not have to worry, like my students do, about being assigned to special education classes because they were chronic discipline “problems” or didn’t speak “proper” English. They were never told that they would be more likely to get pregnant and drop-out of school than go on to a four-year college. These vaunted intellectuals and philosophers were certainly not seventeen year-old East L.A. girls like Paula Crisostomo, a Mexican-American Filipina activist who helped spearhead the Chicano student walkouts of 1968. The East L.A. walkouts were the largest high school student protests in this nation’s history. Thousands of students boycotted their classes in protest over lack of college access, tracking policies, discrimination against speaking Spanish in the classroom, and racist curricula.

In 2012, Crisostomo came and spoke to a group of my students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles. She drew parallels between the racism she’d encountered during the Vietnam War era and the de facto segregation of the Obama age. Girls like Ms. Crisostomo were not supposed to go to college. Homemaking, caregiving, becoming a maid in a white household on the Westside—these were the common life expectations for young Latinas. Forty-five years later, young women like my former student Ronmely Andrade are not among the Talented Tenth who are expected to go on to college. Ronmely was headed to the military after graduation, swayed by the Marines’ relentless on-campus recruitment campaign. A gifted speaker and presenter, at the end of her senior year she expressed misgivings about going to boot camp and training for a career as a mechanic. After we discussed her options for withdrawing from boot camp she enrolled in her first year at community college.

For Paula Crisotomo’s generation, the military was pervasive. Youth of color died in disproportionate numbers fighting and killing other dark-skinned peoples in Vietnam because college was not an option in the “ghetto.” Despite an increase in the number of students of color in college, aggressive military recruitment continues to be a reality for black, Latino, and Native American students. For many, college preparation and equitable college access are still a distant dream. For some, simply graduating from high school at campuses where less than 50% of the entering freshman class makes it to graduation is an accomplishment. This has become the standard in an era in which the Education Trust estimates that only “one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university” in the next decade.5 While predominantly black and Latino schools in South and East L.A. are besieged by military recruiters, the more affluent white schools get the college recruiters, college prep classes, and highly qualified teachers. The Americana fever pitch of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines is unheard of on predominantly white campuses in Los Angeles. It is a given that these students will be going to college, not dying on the frontlines.

But faced with a school-to-prison pipeline that offers no way out, more and more girls like Ronmely are eyeing the military as a viable path to college and careers. As one of the many fierce youth in my Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) program, Ronmely and her peers define what culturally relevant humanism looks like in an age of educational apartheid. In 2002 I founded the WLP, a feminist civic engagement and mentoring program, after being frustrated by the absence of explicitly anti-racist, feminist programs for girls in the community. The program was piloted in two South L.A. middle schools during a period in which the black and Latino communities were becoming increasingly intertwined. Sensationalist language about “endangered” black males and feral super-predator young men of color was the order of the day.

In a 2004 article entitled “Feminist Pedagogy and Youth Advocacy,” I

In a cultural climate where the crisis of black boys and young black males has been used as a metaphor for urban dysfunction, scant attention is paid to the special social circumstances of girls of color…many girls of color have little consciousness of how gender inequality shapes their lives. While race solidarity runs deep, they often fail to see the connection between the use of misogynistic language and violent imagery in their favorite videos and the way they are treated in everyday life, at school and in their relationships. Many girls assume a “blame the victim” stance about the rampant sexual assault and verbal abuse of young women that is a staple of American popular culture.

The core curriculum of WLP is humanist, focusing in part on the nexus between organized religion and gender hierarchy. We train students to understand how heterosexist gender roles shape racist/sexist cultural expectations for women of color. Becoming critical observers of the media, public policy, and their local communities, they develop a critical consciousness about how misogynist violence is normalized in their everyday lives. Students spearhead school-community advocacy projects of their own choosing, sharpening their critical thinking, writing, collaboration, public speaking, and leadership skills. WLP’s fouryear college-going rate for graduating seniors is significantly above that of the schools where our programs are based. The majority of our girls are first generation college students like Ronmely.

Ronmely is an agnostic from a Catholic family. She is a natural born leader who exudes a steely poise and control in front of students that are often hostile to hearing about sexual violence from assertive young women of color. When I was her age, no one ever came to our classrooms to talk to us about sexual violence or sexual harassment. Even though many of us were being sexually harassed or assaulted daily by peers, predatory teachers, and relatives there was no engagement with the role this played in our sense of self-image and life expectations. There was no feminist youth movement to address misogyny and internalized sexism in communities of color. Demonized as “ho” super-sluts women of color weren’t true victims of sexual violence. It was accepted that we should remain silent about our victimization, lest we be smeared as uppity castrating bitches detracting from the “real” issue of the brutalization of men of color.

Women of color who refuse to remain silent about misogynist violence are traitors in this culture. Girls of color learn very early on that allegiance to boys and men of color supersedes their allegiance to their own sense of selfhood. But black girls are still profiled by police, followed around in stores like potential criminals, demeaned by teachers as low-achieving, and over-suspended in public schools. For centuries, racism, sexism, white supremacy, and capitalism have “defined” our (sub)humanity in public discourse. In her landmark book Their Eyes Were Watching God, freethinker and author Zora Neale Hurston describes black women as “de mules of de world.” It is a cautionary truth voiced by the grandmother of Janie, the novel’s lead character. Janie’s grandmother is a deeply religious woman and former slave who is the moral pillar of her life. Janie’s struggle to self-determine in a culture in which black women’s bodies and destinies were not theirs to fully control has become a classic metaphor for women of color in white supremacist America.

As a religious skeptic, Hurston nonetheless understood the seductions of god for a people whose humanity was still violently contested centuries after the first Africans came to the United States. Culturally relevant humanism is informed by this seeming contradiction. Embracing godlessness requires critical consciousness of how the tyranny of the unsettled past is a living breathing legacy in the present. For my students, coming of age in a country that has blighted their history, the lie of American exceptionalism is as deadly a national opiate as blind faith in fantastical gods.

Dr. Hutchinson is a writer and senior intergroup specialist for the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission and the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles. She received a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University and has taught women’s studies, cultural studies, urban studies and education at UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts and Western Washington University. She is also the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious RebelsImagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. She has published fiction, essays and critical theory in Social Text, California English, Black Agenda Report, Free Inquiry, and the Humanist. She is the editor of, an editor and a blogger at Black Skeptics on the Freethought Blogs network, and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.

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