By Sikivu Hutchinson
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 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 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 “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.