An excerpt from Latina/o Social Ethics Moving Beyond Eccentric Moral Thinking by Miguel A. De La Torre
A major problem facing marginalized communities, and in our case the Hispanic community, is that since childhood we have been taught to see and interpret reality through the eyes of the dominant culture. For those within the community who pursue scholastic endeavors, the success that is to be rewarded with a doctorate is determined by mastery of the predominant Eurocentric academic canon. Hispanic contributions to the discourse are usually dismissed as nonessential in demonstrating academic excellence. This is evidenced by the numerous scholars in the U.S. who have little or no knowledge of the scholarship taking place among Latino/as.
The triumph of the colonizing process is best demonstrated when scholars of color define themselves and their disenfranchised communities through academic paradigms that contribute to their marginalization. Latina/o ethicists are forced to exhibit academic rigor through the use of ethical models that more often than not are incapable of liberating oppressed communities. These scholars are forced, in a sense, to pour liberative wine into the old Eurocentric ethics skins.
To do so, as Jesus points out, causes the skins to burst and the liberative message to be lost. We Hispanics must pour our own liberative wine into our own ethical paradigms so that both can be preserved together and used by our community, which thirsts to drink this Good News. As José Martí, who needs no introduction among Latina/os, reminds us: “Nuestro vino de plátano, y si es agrio, es nuestro vino.”
The view of the ethical landscape from the pedestal of privilege is radically different than the view from the depths of disenfranchisement. This book challenges the prevailing assumption within the discipline of Christian ethics that the present scholarly landscape, rooted in Eurocentric thought, is the pinnacle of academic excellence.
According to that assumption, held by Eurocentric ethicists, the particularity of scholarship emanating from non-Eurocentric communities, as in the case of Latina/o-rooted ethical paradigms, threatens to weaken the prevailing so-called academic rigor. Voices from the Hispanic community may be needed to show diversity and political correctness, but they must be kept at bay lest they actually influence the discourse. The old wineskins of Eurocentric ethics are based on the presupposition that religion as a discipline is rooted in a nineteenth-century European definition of what education of religion should be. Even though our postmodern conversations may have persuaded the academy to reject such metanarratives, they are still enforced, determining who is “in” (academically rigorous) and who is “out” (has an interesting perspective but lacks academic excellence).
Excellence, that is, continues to mean Eurocentrism. Eurocentric thought, unconscious of how the discipline of religion has been racialized, claims to exemplify a color-blind excellence in scholarship for all of humanity. By its very nature, Eurocentric ethical theory maintains that universal moral norms can be achieved independent of place, time, or people group. Such ethical norms created by Euroamerican ethicists are accepted as both universal and objective, and thus applicable to the Latino/a milieu.
To speak from any Eurocentric perspective is to speak about and for all of humanity, including Hispanics. For this reason, Euroamerican scholars can become experts in the particularity of the cultures of Other, that is, those communities that are deemed “less than white.” Ironically, scholars of color have the particularity of their analysis reduced to subjectivity—to interesting perspectives that fall short of rigor, regardless of how meticulous their scholarship may actually be.
Because whiteness is understood and defined as universal, the insights of scholars of color are often institutionally relegated to a realm lacking any universal gravitas. Nevertheless, marginalized communities of color have long recognized that no ethical perspective is value free. The subjectivity of Eurocentric ethical thought can be lifted by the academy to universal objectivity because the academy retains the power to define a reality that secures and protects their scholastic privilege. Reduced to a phenotype-based expertise, scholars of color are expected to dwell exclusively in the areas of study bordered by their race or ethnicity. Experts in the particular, they are neither expected nor encouraged to speak with authority about Eurocentric thought.
Reduced to and trapped within their race or ethnicity, scholars of color are geared to the particular, where they are continually forced to speak to the center, always attempting to justify their right to exist and the importance of contributions they can make to the overall discourse. And if a Hispanic ethicist were to become an authority on Euroamerican ethicists like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Stanley Hauerwas, she or he would be viewed as an oddity if not aping, for after all, shouldn’t all Latina/os just study Hispanic religiosity?
Hispanic scholars who dare to assess critically the works of formative Euroamerican ethicists face having their critique dismissed. The Latina/o scholar will either be accused of conducting a “thin” reading of the primary texts or be caricatured as angry. As tempting as it may be to level such a critique against Hispanic scholars who challenge the Eurocentric canon, it is important to refrain. Even though the Hispanic ethicist may be portrayed as lacking intelligence or simply hostile, he or she does provide a “double-consciousness” that is capable of revealing what those blinded by their privileged status miss.
As a corrective measure, this book will attempt to create new skins for our liberative wine by using the tools and materials indigenous to our “Latinoness.” But before we are able to use our own Hispanic ethic skins, we must explain why the Eurocentric ethic skins are inadequate—why they will burst. To that end, we will read Euroamerican ethicists “with Hispanic eyes,” seeing, maybe for the first time, how dominant groups have historically constructed ethics to suit their needs and protect their privilege.
The first half of the book will attempt to deconstruct Eurocentric ethical paradigms to demonstrate why they are both detrimental to and irreconcilable with the Hispanic social location. When such paradigms bring suffering, oppression, and death (literally and figuratively) to the Hispanic community, they must be rejected. Nevertheless, the best of mestizaje, our cultural mixture, recognizes the European part of our identity and the ambiguity and irony this creates when we deal with Eurocentric ethical paradigms. Hispanics recognize that even what we should reject in our identity is part of who we are as a people. The challenge is how to delineate and reject those parts of Eurocentric ethics with which there can be no compromise or reconciliation (e.g., complicity with the U.S. Empire) and move beyond those segments of Eurocentric analysis with which we can converse.
The second half of this book will attempt to construct a new Hispanic-centered ethical paradigm rooted in our community way of being. The hope is not only to articulate aspects of how we historically have conducted ethics, but also to examine possible future directions. We search for a dynamic ethics that is not only living, but also lived. This is a Latina/o ethics based on praxis that pursues social justice, here understood as creating harmony within social structures by countering and correcting the undue power and privilege held by the few at the expense of the many.
Miguel A. De La Torre is Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. His academic focus is on social ethics within contemporary U.S. thought, specifically how religion affects race, class, and gender oppression. He served as the 2012 President of the Society of Christian Ethics and earned the 2020 AAR Excellence in Teaching Award and the 2021 Martin E. Marty Public Understanding of Religion Award. Recently, he wrote the screenplay to a documentary on immigration (http://www.trailsofhopeandterrorthemovie.com/) and has written an autofiction magical realism novel. His website is: http://drmigueldelatorre.com/.
Venga, madre— su rebozo arrastra telaraña negra y sus enaguas le enredan los tobillos; apoya el peso de sus años en trémulo bastón y sus manos temblorosas empujan sobre el mostrador centavos sudados. ¿Aún todavía ve, viejecita, la jara de su aguja arrastrando colores? Las flores que borda con hilazas de a tres-por-diez no se marchitan tan pronto como las hojas del tiempo. ¿Qué cosas recuerda? Su boca parece constantemente saborear los restos de años rellenos de miel. ¿Dónde están los hijos que parió? ¿Hablan ahora solamente inglés y dicen que son hispanos? Sé que un día no vendrá a pedirme que le que escoja los matices que ya no puede ver. Sé que esperaré en vano su bendición desdentada. Miraré hacia la calle polvorienta refrescada por alas de paloma hasta que un chiquillo mugroso me jale de la manga y me pregunte: — Señor, jau mach is dis? --
To an Old Woman
Come, mother— your rebozo trails a black web and your hem catches on your heels, you lean the burden of your years on shaky cane, and palsied hand pushes sweat-grimed pennies on the counter. Can you still see, old woman, the darting color-trailed needle of your trade? The flowers you embroider with three-for-a-dime threads cannot fade as quickly as the leaves of time. What things do you remember? Your mouth seems to be forever tasting the residue of nectar hearted years. Where are the sons you bore? Do they speak only English now and say they’re Spanish? One day I know you will not come and ask for me to pick the colors you can no longer see. I know I’ll wait in vain for your toothless benediction. I’ll look into the dusty street made cool by pigeons’ wings until a dirty kid will nudge me and say: “Señor, how mach ees thees?”
Riffs sobre el poema “A una anciana / To an Old Woman”
por Rafael Jesús González
Regresando a casa después de mi servicio en la marina estadunidense en 1958, me matriculé bajo la ley GI en la Universidad de Texas El Paso que entonces se llamaba Texas Western State College of the University of Texas. Después de clases trabajaba en la tiendita general de mi padre llamada Casa Gonycia (abreviatura de González y compañía) que vendía artículos de tocador, útiles escolares, juguetes, artículos de mercería y artículos varios en el Segundo barrio, el barrio de clase trabajadora más cercano a la frontera mexicana-estadounidense. De mi experiencia trabajando allí vino mi poema “A una anciana/To an Old Woman” en 1959. Había formado amistad con una cliente frecuente, una mujer muy mayor que a menudo me consultaba sobre la hilaza de bordar para combinar o complementar los colores de su exquisito bordado. Más allá de eso el poema es obra de mi imaginación. No arrastraba rebozo ni tropezaba con su bastilla ni pagaba sus compras con “centavos sudados.” Podía ver bastante bien y nuestras discusiones sobre los colores eran puramente estéticas. Coloreé su imagen para mis propios fines como escritor e imaginé una situación que pudiera o no ser suya para presentar un problema que siempre me había (ha) preocupado: la asimilación.
Nací y me creé en El Paso, Texas con familia a través del Río Bravo en Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua y la identidad se convertía cada vez más en un problema. El español era mi primera lengua y hasta los mediados de los 1960s cuando me convertí en chicano, era simplemente mexicano aunque sabía que era ciudadano de los Estados Unidos de América. Aun hoy en día cuando se me pregunta, “¿Qué eres?” mi respuesta inmediata es “mexicano” aunque cuando estoy más alerta digo, “Chicano.” Aunque cuando se me pregunta, “Cual es tu ciudadanía” no titubeo en absoluto.
No aprendí inglés hasta los siete en la escuela pública Lamar y a principio no fue fácil. Ya leía y escribía básicamente en español y el sonido impredecible de las mismas letras en inglés me confundía. Estuve en la oscuridad la mayor parte del tiempo. Un día mi madre con mi hermanito me acompañó a la escuela y se fueron a casa de mis abuelos a unas cuadras de distancia. Me encontré en un patio de recreo totalmente vacío, las puertas de la escuela cerradas. Estuve aterrorizado. Caminé de regreso a una casa vacía. Me senté en el portal confundido, asustado, sólo hasta que mi madre y abuela vinieron con mi hermanito y me cubrieron de abrazos y besos. La maestra había anunciado un día de fiesta pero yo no había entendido.
No ayudaba que fuéramos castigados si se nos escuchaba hablar español en la aula, los corredores o el patio de recreo. Si le preguntábamos a un compañero de clase, “¿Qué dijo la maestra?” se nos hacía pararnos en un rincón o nos mantenían después de clase. Tengo la distinción de haber reprobado el primer grado. Sobresalía en dibujo y pintura y recuerdo a una amable maestra, la Sra. Hall en cuarto grado, que me elogió y animó. Pero el director recomendó que mis padres nos llevaran a mí y a mi hermano Arturo (dos años menor que yo) a la Escuela Bailey para niños “retrasados.”
Mi padre lo hizo y el director de la Escuela Bailey que no pudo habernos tenido allí más de treinta minutos, le dijo a mi padre que no pertenecíamos allí y recomendó que nos cambiara de escuela. Mis padres se endeudaron y compraron su primera y única casa para que pudiéramos cambiar de distritos e ir a la escuela pública Morehead donde nuestros problemas desaparecieron. (Dos maestras se destacan: la Sra. Patricia Robinson, maestra de arte que hablaba excelente español e invitaba a algunos estudiantes a su casa para dibujar y pintar. Y la Srta. Mary Hignett, maestra de inglés, con quien hice amigos en mis años universitarios hasta su muerte.)
La escuela Morehead, El Paso, Texas
Para entonces en 1950 me había ajustado, aculturado si quiere; no fui asimilado (lo que para mí tiene la connotación de ser masticado, tragado y digerido). Para mí, el lenguaje ha sido una piedra de toque de asimilación. El indio mexicano yo había sido asimilado hacía mucho tiempo; mi abuelo materno Papanito, don Diego González Sosa a excepción por su color y facciones y su decir que éramos indio no hablaba lengua indígena para indicarlo sino solo un castellano formal. El mexicano mestizo yo, no así. Fui bendecido con padres, Jesús Fidel González de Coahuila y Carmen González Prieto de Durango, (traídos a los EE.UU. a los 13 y 12 años respetivamente) quienes siempre insistieron en que habláramos y escribiéramos tanto en español como en inglés. Tomé cursos en español durante la escuela secundaria y me gradué de la universidad con un bachillerato en literatura inglesa con suficientes horas en literatura española para una doble especialización. En una ironía del destino, he pasado la mayor parte de mi vida como profesor de inglés en universidades y colegios. Resistir la asimilación es una lucha, especialmente en un imperio que impone su hegemonía (militar, económica, política, lingüística, cultural) en el mundo. Toda mi vida he tenido que defender aun mi nombre. Personas que deberían saber más insisten en escribir Rafael, Raphael (la ph no existe en español), omitir los acentos en Jesús y González y escribir González con S. Y algunos han tenido el descaro de dirigirse a mí como Ralph, entre ellos S. I. Hayakawa, un lingüista japonés-canadiense, firme oponente a la educación bilingüe y fundador del movimiento “Solo Inglés” para hacer el inglés el idioma oficial de los Estados Unidos. Por supuesto que la asimilación implica mucho más que el nombre y la lengua materna de uno. Las presiones para asimilarse son grandes en los EE.UU. y se logra grado a grado por lo que sea que uno emprenda: educación, profesión, activismo político, participación social. Pero, como con la conquista de las Américas, se debe resistir. La pregunta es, ¿en que medida? Para mí una línea de identidad que se debe respetar es mi nombre y mi lengua materna aunque reconozco que algunos de mis compatriotas chicanos que más se resisten a la asimilación se les dieron nombres en inglés al nacer y se les enseñó sólo inglés por padres ansiosos por asimilarse para tratar de salvar a sus hijos de la discriminación virulenta, el racismo, endémico de los EE.UU. Dos razones principales por las que vine a la Bahía de San Francisco fueron su sistema de colegios comunitarios. En el Colegio Laney, Oakland donde enseñe durante treinta años, muchos de mis estudiantes hablaban español, ebonics (dialecto africano-estadounidense), cantonés, japonés, tagalo, pachuco, náhuatl, quechua, un idioma maya y otras lenguas demasiadas para listar. En mis clases siempre enfaticé que enseñaría inglés estándar, no como un sustituto del idioma o idiomas que ya conocían sino simplemente como uno más para agregar. En muchos lugares y situaciones, como en su hogar, barrios, iglesia, su lengua materna serviría excelentemente bien. Al mismo tiempo, en otros lugares como la academia, el trabajo, la política, el banco, el inglés estándar sería un instrumento para abrir puertas que de otro modo estarían cerradas para ell@s. Cuídense y eviten los falso dilemas, les decía a mis alumn@s. Cuando se me pregunta si quiero helado de vainilla o de chocolate, respondo que sí, por favor, tomaré de los dos. La resistencia terca, a veces vehemente, a la educación bilingüe en los EE.UU. solía desconcertarme. Cada idioma es un mundo en una Tierra compartida, una forma particular de formar una realidad, una aventura de la consciencia humana. ¿Por qué negar a l@s niñ@s un segundo idioma a una edad en la que pueden aprenderlo tan fácilmente? ¿Por qué insistir en la ignorancia? Ahora me desconcierta menos. El excepcionalismo, como el narcisismo, es una identidad frágil que no tolera la variedad, las comparaciones. Prefiere un mundo en su imagen, su propia marca de realidad, su hegemonía. El excepcionalismo insiste en la “pureza” de raza, de política, de religión, de cultura, de idioma, etc. Celoso de sus propias fronteras, el excepcionalismo no vacila en violar las de los demás. Insiste en la asimilación, o si no . . . Se podría decir que el idioma es el aspecto más importante de la identidad, no solo de la nación, sino a menudo de la clase social. El objetivo de impartir clases sólo en inglés estándar en las escuelas públicas es, por supuesto, la estandarización, la homogeneización y la asimilación que son requisitos del estado nación en el que el angloamericano se considera el estándar étnico. No soy partidario del estado nación; prefiero mucho más el estado multinacional, y por mucho que haya resistencia a él, históricamente violenta y genocida, los Estados Unidos es en hecho tal. No soy nacionalista. Cuando se me pregunta mi ciudadanía, lo más probable es que ahora responda, “del mundo”. O Berkeley (destinado a fronteras, la línea divisora entre la ciudad de Berkeley y la ciudad de Oakland pasa justo por el medio de mi casa así que preparo el desayuno en Berkeley y lo como en Oakland.) Soy habitante de frontera; crecí sin creer en las fronteras. Me gustan las diferencias, soy tolerante con la contradicción, cómodo con la paradoja. Me gustan las distinciones pero también me gusta la mezcla, la difusión, las sombras y los matices. Entendí cuando mi cliente la viejita me pedía hilaza matizada para sus bordados. En cuanto a mi escritura, negarme a sacrificar mi español no menos que mi nombre, me hace heredero de dos musas, hermanas congeniales, y no abandonaré la una por la otra. Nunca sé cual me hablará primero pero en cuanto una me da un verso, una frase, la otra inmediatamente me da su equivalente en la otra lengua, un diálogo, una discusión que afecta a cada versión tal que casi todos mis poemas son piezas únicas en dos lenguas, ninguna versión de la otra. Los editores a menudo no entienden el bilingüismo y preguntan que versión es la traducción de la otra, cual debe estar en cursiva. Parece desconcertarlos cuando digo que ni la una o la otra. Y aun más cuando insisto en que tampoco las palabras solas en el cuerpo del texto. También podría notar que aunque respeto la mezcla, también me gustan las distinciones y que escribo tanto en inglés estadounidense bastante estándar como en español mexicano bastante estándar, cada uno por separado y distinto. Temo que esto no solo habla de mi identidad sino también de mi enseñanza y quizás de mi clase. Así sea el chicano que soy. Pero hay que responderle a la pregunta del chiquillo en mi poema: Demasiado mijo, mucho muy demasiado; too much, much, much too much.
Riffs on the Poem “A una anciana / To an Old Woman”
by Rafael Jesús González
Coming home from my stint in the U.S. Navy in 1958, I enrolled under the G.I. Bill at the University of Texas El Paso which was then named Texas Western State College of the University of Texas. After classes, I worked at my father’s small general store named Gonycia (abbreviated for González y compañía) which sold toiletries, school supplies, toys, notions, and sundries, in el Segundo barrio, the working-class neighborhood closest to the U.S.-Mexican border.
Rafael Jesús González in the Navy circa 1956
From my experience working there came my poem “A una anciana/To an Old Woman” in 1959. I had formed a bond with a regular customer, a very elderly woman who often consulted me about embroidery floss to match or complement the colors of her exquisite embroidery. Beyond that, the poem is a work of my imagination. She did not trail a rebozo nor trip on her hems, nor did she pay for her purchases with “sweat-grimed pennies.” She could see well enough and our discussions of colors were purely aesthetic. I embellished her image for my own purposes as a writer and imagined a situation which might or might not have been hers to present a problem that had (has) always concerned me: assimilation.
I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, with family across the Río Bravo in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and identity increasingly became a problem. Spanish was my first language and, until about the mid 1960s when I became Chicano, I was simply Mexican though I knew that I was a citizen of the United States of America. Even today, when I am asked, “What are you?” my immediate response is “Mexican” though when I am more alert, I will say, “Chicano.” Though when I am asked, “What is your citizenship?” I do not hesitate at all.
I did not learn English until I was seven at Lamar Public School and at first it was not easy. I was already doing some basic reading and writing in Spanish and the unpredictable sound of the same letters in English confused me. I was in the dark most of the time. One day my mother with my little brother walked me to school and went on to my grandparents’ house a few blocks away. I found myself in a totally empty playground, doors of the school closed. I was terrified. I walked back home to an empty house. I sat on the porch confused, afraid, lonely until my mother and grandmother came with my little brother and covered me with abrazos and kisses. A holiday had been announced by the teacher, but I had not understood.
It did not help that we were punished if we were heard speaking Spanish in the classroom, the halls, or the playground. If we asked a classmate, “¿Qué dijo la maestra?” we were made to stand in a corner or kept after school. I have the distinction of having failed first grade. I did excel in drawing and coloring and I recall a kind teacher Mrs. Hall in fourth grade who praised and encouraged me. But the principal recommended that my parents take me and my brother Arturo (two years younger that I) to Bailey School for “retarded” children.
My father did so and the principal at Bailey School who could not have kept us there more than thirty minutes or so, told my father that we did not belong there, and recommended that we change schools. My parents went into debt and bought their first and only house so that we could change districts and go to Morehead Public School where our problems vanished. (Two teachers stand out: Mrs. Patricia Robinson, art teacher, who spoke excellent Spanish and would invite a few students to her home on weekends to draw and paint. And Miss Mary Hignett, English teacher, with whom I became friends in my college years until her death.)
González family circa 1947: parents Carmen (left) and Jesús (right) with sons Arturo (left) and Rafael (center)
By then in 1950 I was adjusted, acculturated if you will; I was not assimilated (which to me has connoted being chewed, swallowed, and digested). For me, language has been a touchstone of assimilation. Mexican Indian me had long been assimilated; my maternal grandfather Papanito, don Diego González Sosa except for his color and features and his saying that we were indio spoke no indigenous language to indicate it, but only a formal castellano. Mexican mestizo me not so. I was blessed with parents, Jesús Fidel González of Coahuila and Carmen González Prieto of Durango (brought to the U.S. at 13 and 12, respectively), who always insisted that we speak and write both Spanish and English. I took Spanish courses throughout high school and graduated from college with a degree in English literature with enough hours in Spanish literature for a double major. In an irony of fate, I have spent most of my life as a professor of English in universities and colleges. Resisting assimilation is a struggle, especially in an empire that imposes its hegemony (military, economic, political, linguistic, cultural) on the world. All my life I’ve had to defend even my name. Folk who should know better insist on spelling Rafael, Raphael (the ph does not exist in Spanish), leaving out the accents in Jesús and González, and spelling González with an S. And some have had the effrontery to address me as Ralph, among them S. I. Hayakawa, a Japanese-Canadian immigrant linguist, adamant opponent of bi-lingual education and founder of the English-only “U.S. English” movement to make English the official language of the United States. Of course, assimilation involves much more than one’s name and one’s native tongue. The pressures to assimilate are great in the U.S. and it is accomplished by and to degrees by whatever one undertakes: schooling, profession, political activism—social involvement. But, as with the conquest of the Americas, it is to be resisted. The question is, to what degree. For me a line of identity to be respected is my name and my mother tongue though I recognize that some of my Chicanx compatriots most resisting assimilation were given English names at birth and taught only English by parents eager to assimilate to try to save their children from the virulent discrimination, racism, endemic to the U.S. Two major reasons for my coming to San Francisco Bay were its community college system and the rich racial and ethnic variety of its people. At Laney College, Oakland where I taught for thirty years, many of my students spoke Spanish, Ebonics, Cantonese, Japanese, Tagalog, Pachuco, Nahuatl, Quechua, a Maya language, and other tongues too many to list. In my classes, I always emphasized that I would teach Standard English, not as a substitute for the language or languages they already knew but simply as another one to be added. In many places and situations such as in their home, ‘hoods, church, their native tongue would serve most excellently well. At the same time, in other places such as academia, work, politics, the bank, Standard English would be a tool to open doors otherwise closed to them. Beware of and avoid false dilemmas, I would say to my students. When asked if I wanted vanilla or chocolate ice-cream, I would reply, yes, please, I will have both. The mulish, sometimes vehement, resistance to bilingual education in the U.S. used to puzzle me. Each language is a world in a shared Earth, a particular way of shaping a reality, an adventure of human consciousness. Why deny children a second language at an age when they could so easily learn it? Why insist upon ignorance? It now puzzles me less. Exceptionalism, like narcissism, is a fragile identity intolerant of variety, of comparisons. It prefers one world in its image, its own brand of reality, its hegemony. Exceptionalism insists on “purity” of race, politics, religion, culture, language, and so on. Jealous of its own borders, exceptionalism does not hesitate violating those of others. It insists on assimilation—or else. Language is arguably the single most important aspect of identity not only of nation but often of social class. The goal of teaching classes only in Standard English in public schools is of course standardization, homogenization, assimilation which are prerequisites of the nation state in which the Anglo-American is viewed as the ethnic standard. I am not partisan of the nation state; I much prefer the multinational state, and much as there is resistance to it, historically violent and genocidal, the U.S. is in fact such. I am not a nationalist. When asked my citizenship, I would most likely now reply, “of the world.” Or Berkeley (destined to borders, the dividing line between the city of Berkeley and the city of Oakland runs right through the middle of my house so that I fix breakfast in Berkeley and eat it in Oakland). I am a denizen of the border; I grew up disbelieving in borders. I like differences, am tolerant of contradiction, comfortable with paradox. I like distinctions but I also like the blending, the diffusion, shades and hues. I understood when my customer the old lady asked for hilaza matizada (variegated floss) for her embroidery. As to my writing, my refusal to sacrifice my Spanish no less than my name, makes me heir to two muses, congenial sisters, and I will not forsake one for the other. I never know which will speak to me first, but as soon as one gives me a line, a phrase, a verse, the other will immediately give me its equivalent in the other tongue, a dialogue, a discussion that affects each version so that almost all of my poems are unique pieces in two tongues, neither version the translation of the other. Editors most often do not understand bilingualism and ask which version is the translation of the other, which should be set in italics. It seems to disconcert them when I say neither. And even more when I insist that neither should be individual words in the body of the text. I might also note that though I respect blending, I also like distinctions and that I write in both fairly Standard U.S. English and fairly Standard Mexican Spanish, each separate and distinct. I am afraid that this not only speaks to my identity, but also to my schooling, and perhaps my class. Such be the Chicano I am. But the kid in my poem “A una anciana/To an Old Woman” must be answered his question: Demasiado mijo, mucho muy demasiado; too much, much, much too much.
Previous publication credits:
To an Old Woman, González, Rafael Jesús. “To the Old Woman.” New Mexico Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 4, 1961
A una Anciana, González, Rafael Jesús, New Poets of the American West; Lowell Jaeger, Ed.; 2010, Many Voices Press.
Riffs on the Poem “A una anciana/To an Old Woman”, English Journal, Vol. III no. 5, May 2022, of the National Council of Teachers of English.
Riffs sobre el poema “A una anciana/To an Old Woman”, Uncommon Ground, Seigel, Shizue, Ed.; San Francisco, Pease Press, 2022
Rafael Jesús González, profesor de escritura creativa y literatura enseño en varias universidades antes de establecerse en el Colegio Laney en Oakland, California, donde fundó el Departamento de Estudios Mexicanos y Latinoamericanos en 1969. Cuatro veces postulado para el Premio Pushcart, Rafael fue honrado por sus escritos por el Concilio Nacional de Docentes de Inglés en 2003. Recibió un premio por logros de toda una vida César Chávez en 2013 y uno de la ciudad de Berkeley en 2015. Rafael es el primer Poeta Laureado de Berkeley. Visite email@example.com.
Rafael Jesús González, a professor of creative writing and literature, taught at several universities before he settled at Laney College in Oakland, California, where he founded the Department of Mexican and Latin American Studies in 1969. Four times nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Rafael was honored for his writing by NCTE in 2003. He received a César Chávez Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 and one from the city of Berkeley, California, in 2015. Rafael is Berkeley’s first Poet Laureate. Visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prof. Ruiz takes a selfie with her class titled, “Introduction to the Chicano/Latino Experience” at CSU-Stanislaus in Spring 2017
The Colonial Syllabus in Literature and First Year Composition
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca and Iris D. Ruiz
Originally published 8/15/2017 in Somos en escrito.
Maria Cabrera displays a collage on the United Farm Workers Grape Boycott
The central question of this essay is: Can the Syllabus be an agent of colonialism by serving as a vehicle for censorship, indoctrination, and an inhibitor of intellectual freedom? We believe it can.
Writing in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (2016 Dec 25; 80(10): 177), Martha M. Rumpore informs us that “For several decades the literature has referred to syllabi as legal documents and/or contracts between students and professors. A review of the legal precedents reveals that syllabi are not considered contracts because the courts refuse thus far to recognize educational malpractice or breach of contract as a cause of action. Syllabi do, however, represent a triggering agent for instructional dissent and grade appeals.”
Essentially, however, students are barred from redress based solely on the course syllabus. In effect they are held captives by a syllabus that protects the academic emissions of the Instructor or Professor no matter how misinformed he or she may be or how odious the emissions. Nevertheless, the syllabus represents “a triggering agent for instructional dissent.” This means students may disagree openly (at their own peril) with the academic emissions of the Instructor or Professor. Important to bear in mind is that:
Since its founding in 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has understood academic freedom to comprise three interlinked elements: (1) the freedom to teach without external interference, (2) the freedom to conduct research without ideological constraint, and (3) the freedom to speak openly and without sanction on matters of institutional policy and on issues of public concern.
“Issues of public concern” does not mean license to spew in the classroom ideological claptrap, character assassination, or outright lies. Yet these peccadillos arise over and over in college and university classrooms with impunity in the belief that their emissions are protected speech. Not all speech is protected by the First Amendment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes established the proviso that one may not yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no presence of fire (incitement to imminent lawless action), and yelling “bomb” heedlessly on an airplane (ditto).
The syllabus–any syllabus–is never free of bias; it’s always an idiocritical agent of the instructor even when the instructor makes every effort to keep the syllabus bias-free. From this perspective, can a syllabus be an agent of censorship in what we learn and an inhibitor of intellectual freedom in that process despite its seemingly innocent function as a guide in that process?
It can, though that kind of gross deception violates the canon of academic freedom which is more than authority to say what one wishes as a teacher/professor in the classroom. Consistent with the tenets of the First Amendment of the American Constitution and instructional propriety, Academic Freedom bestows considerable latitude in the classroom in professing the dictum of one’s professional academic field. This is not permission to rant indiscriminately on politics, religion, or race but permission to hold and to expostulate–within academic bounds–contrarian views in one’s field. Unfortunately or fortuitously the classroom becomes the arena where values clash.
The syllabus is not an arbiter of these clashes but a mediator of their import. What is often missing in the syllabus is the point of view or bias of the instructor anent the topic or subject of the class and its content. A seemingly innocuous guide to the course, the syllabus does not alert the student to the layout of the intellectual minefield he or she will traverse in the coverage of the course. This does not mean that syllabi are perforce nefarious. It does mean that all syllabi inscribe motive.
Motive is difficult to plumb. But it’s there. Even with the best of intentions (motives) a syllabus can be flawed. In the case of the absent text–by and about Minority literature and its writers–critical race theory (CRT) helps in unwrangling the Gordian Knot of literature. According to the UCLA School of Public Affairs’ critical race studies website:
“CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color” (https://spacrs.wordpress.com/).
The Syllabus and Courses
Applying Critical Race Theory, Roberto Pachecano posits that American Latina/o authors are not appearing in the syllabi of contemporary American literature courses because of outright racism. And if works by American Latina/o authors are not being assigned in literature classes, then using the 1964 Civil Rights Act Title VI protocols as a guide Latinos and Latinas are uniquely situated to advocate for the modernizing of syllabi to include American Latina/o authors.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as codified in 42 U.S.C. 2000d, states that: No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. “Literary works by Latinos are seldom selected, due in part to student’s unfamiliarity with these authors” (Roberto Pachecano).
Here, then, is a prime example of censorship by omission and a revelation of insufficient training in the teaching of American Literature or willful neglect of the moral landscape of education. Historically we know about the absence of black writers in the syllabi of American Literature prior to the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. Outright prejudice against black writers by white literary gatekeepers kept black writers out of the classes in American Literature prompting black scholars and writers to organize the College Language Association (CLA) as a mechanism for literary inclusion in Academia.
An early effort of the 60s and 70s to counter not only the absence of Chicano texts and the absence of Chicanos in course texts was creation and publication of “counter-texts.” For example, to offset the racist characterizations of Chicanos and their culture in Social Science texts, a string of texts were created by Chicano scholars encouraged by the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE). In the long run these critical counter narratives helped in challenging dominant ideology and eliminating Chicano stereotyping in Social Science texts.
Unfortunately, these counter-texts did not abate the absence of Chicano writers in classes of American Literature. The problem with texts of American Literature is that in far too many departments of English there is the belief that English is white and that the only writers of note are white.
“For too long social and cognitive scientists have regarded the ‘victim’ as the locus of the problem with conclusions that American minorities fail because their culture is faulty” (Ortego, November 2014). This pronouncement of “cultural determinism” is still bruited widely. The outcome of that pronouncement has been a “cultural dissonance” among Chicano/Latino students vying for academic success in most colleges and universities including, of all places, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) that should be nurturing their success. Cultural dissonance is an uncomfortable sense of discord, disharmony, confusion or conflict experienced by people in the midst of change in their cultural environment.
The Syllabus and Composition Ortego y Gasca points to the description of English Composition courses as one that is generalizable across many U.S. First Year Composition (FYC) courses. It is free of any mention of what the students will be writing about, only that they will gain competency in “academic writing.” This description refers to writing as a skill to be mastered while not considering what content the student is supposed to be a master of. For students of color, this inherent structure of FYC course syllabi proves disadvantageous as it is assumed that all students have similar cultural competencies or as Pierre Bourdieu would refer to as: “cultural capital.” Similar to the absences in American Literature syllabi that Ortego points to above, Ruiz argues that most U.S. writing programs practice this type of “blind oversight” in their curricula, course learning outcomes, and program learning outcomes. Ruiz’s claim is based upon a search of four year institutions and two year institutions, and the research that Ruiz conducted on the history of race in Writing Program Administration (due in the next issue of the WPA journal).
Turning to the FYC course, the syllabus is never bias-free. As Iris Ruiz has pointed out in Reclaiming Composition for Chicano/as and other Ethnic Minorities: A Critical History and Pedagogy, the first year composition course has historically sanctioned goals that are part and parcel of the genesis of Composition Studies as a discipline. The aim of FYC courses has historically been to correct students’ in/abilities to produce grammatically correct Standard English (aka Edited American English) compositions using prose that demonstrates taste, responsibility, culture, class, and cleanliness.
One only has to examine the Course Learning Outcomes of most FYC Programs present in syllabi and the Assessment procedures undergone by faculty and administration to see that little to nothing has changed (Ruiz and Garcia de Mueller). That nothing has changed means that the standard, white curriculum for FYC Programs is still in place as the hegemonic curriculum in the continuity of its historical purpose.
Ortego comments on the discord between claims to end racism and the continuance of all white curricula in English departments and writing programs at historically white colleges (HWCs). Further adding to this hegemonic stance noted by Ortego in HWCs is Ruiz’ bold description of the cultural imperatives tied to FYC: “The practice of teaching Composition, since its first appearance on university campuses in the late nineteenth century, has been and is still a political practice in that it teaches a certain view of academic writing and enforces, then, a certain cultural conception of what the definition of good writing is even if that definition changes across contexts” (Ruiz, 42). The question is: What does it mean to write well? Evidently e. e. cummings was not paying attention to the writing lectures.
One can teach an orthography of writing, a set of conventions for writing a language including norms of spelling. How does one teach normative writing to class after class of Freshman Composition? With a pantograph, perhaps. This is not meant as derision or mockery. Teaching Composition is tough business, made tougher by how we acquire knowledge predicated by an Epistemic Matrix that includes (though not exclusively) factors of Age, Gender, Education, Religion, Ethnicity, Genetics, Language, and Culture.
Like the Epistemic Matrix, Intersectional Theory posits that the factors of Age, Gender, Education, Religion, Ethnicity, Race, Nationality, Social Class, and Sexual Orientation are inextricably essential in understanding identity and its functions. Assemblage Theory, on the other hand, connects the heterogeneity of these factors. What we can gather from these “frictional” theories is the complexity of teaching.
Reflection Lost in the din of this brouhaha is the specter of American colonialism that has forced Mexican Americans as well as Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, African Americans, and Pacific Islanders, colonized in their own lands by Manifest Destiny, to learn writing in a colonial language (Ruiz and Sánchez) while abandoning scribal competency in their cultural language, “balancing two cultures, two languages, and two places to call home” (Ruiz. 114). This is a condition that principally attends those Americans who ancestrally became Americans by conquest and fiat. This consideration is not evident in the Composition Syllabus.
In their article on “Teaching Race at Historically White Colleges and Universities: Identifying and Dismantling the Walls of Whiteness,” David L. Brunsma, Eric S. Brown, and Peggy Placier inform us that outlining the “walls of whiteness” makes “it difficult to teach the sociology of race and racism and makes it difficult for students at historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs) to wrestle with these important issues. Most white students enter HWCUs surrounded by these walls protecting them from attacks on white supremacy–that have multiple layers and therefore are even more difficult to penetrate; yet they must be penetrated” (Critical Sociology, September 2013, 39: 717–738, first published on September 11, 2012).
Conclusion The fly in this ointment is that American teachers of English in high schools and colleges are ill-prepared not only for the ethnic diversity of their classrooms but also ill-prepared to teach the diversity of American literature since so few are exposed to the diversity of American literature. The focus of their training has been on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the English literary canon.
When teachers of English step into their classrooms all they know about American literature are the works of what was then the American literary canon, limited to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. Nurtured on the Western Tradition, this is what they teach and have taught and passed on to subsequent generations of American students. Sacrosanct, the illumination of the Western Tradition in literature continued unabated until the emergence of minority movements of the post-Brown v. Board of Education era (Ortego 1971).
When these issues appear on a course syllabus they are often glossed over in the presentation or explained from the dominant perspective of the issue which often favors the hegemonic view. Students are thus deprived of the view from the Mexican American side. For example, in today’s political climate, most Anglo Americans think that Mexican Americans are a recently arrived immigrant group.
American demographic knowledge about the Hispanic Southwest and about Mexican Americans in the United States is dismal, evident in spurious remarks by Donald Trump and tweets emanating from Republican and Democratic presidential election activities during this past presidential election cycle. While not overloading the syllabus, it’s important that current syllabi reflect accuracy of content and bias-free perspectives and commentary. Anything less invalidates its use.
Works Cited and Consulted American Association of University Professors, 1133 Nineteenth Street, NW, Suite 200 Washington, DC 20036. Brunsuma. David L., Brown, Eric S., and Placier, Peggy, “Teaching Race at Historically White Colleges and Universities: Identifying the Walls of Whiteness,” Critical Sociology. September 2013 39: 717-738, first published on September 11, 2012. Levy, https://www.wired.com/2010/02/ff_google_algorithm/ Ortego, Philip D., “Montezuma’s Children” The Center Magazine (Cover Story), November /December 1970; received John Maynard Hutchins Citation for Distinguished Journalism; entered into The Congressional Record 116, No. 189 (November 25, 1970, S-18961-S19865) by Senator Ralph Yarbrough (D-TX) who recommended it for a Pulitzer. Ortego, Philip D. “Which Southwestern Literature in the English Classroom?” Arizona English Bulletin, April, 1971. Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de, “Sociopolitical Implications of Bilingual Education”in Educational Resources and Techniques, Summer 1972; Mano a Mano (5:1, February 1976), publication of the Chicano Training Center, Houston, Texas. Reprinted in Developing the Multicultural Process in Classroom Instruction: Competencies for Teachers, University Press of America: Washington, DC, 1979. Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de, “Myth America: Velleities and Realities of the American Ethos,” Sixth Annual Mary Thomas Marshall Lecture, delivered March 12, 1993, Texas State University System–Sul Ross, Alpine, Texas. Published in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, Volume 6, January 1994. Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de and Alexandrs Neves, “Swimming Upstream in Multicultural America: Significance of Global Dynamics in Education for American Latinas/os” in Twenty-First Century Dynamics of Multiculturalism: Beyond Post-Racial America, Edited by Martin Guevara Urbina, Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd, 2014. ______________________, “Writing and Cultural Dissonance: Chicanos/Latinos, Freshman English, and Writing Centers,” Historia Chicana, November 12, 2014. ______________________, “Race on Campus and Historically White Colleges and Universities,” Somos Primos, January 2016. ______________________, “A Page Hidden in American History: The Mexican American Story Yet to be told—Hey America, We’re Your Native Sons,” Somos en Escrito The Latino Literary Online Magazine, Guest Editorial, June 21, 2016. ______________________, “Masks of Identity: The Space of Liminal Possibilities.” Latinopia.com/Bravo Road with Don Felipe, August, 2017. ______________________, “I am not your Wetback,” Latinopia.com/Bravo Road with Don Felipe, July 2017. ______________________,” The Epistemic Matrix and Intersectional Assemblage Theories, Manuscript. Pachecano, Roberto, “American Latinos in Contemporary American Literature: Modernizing the Syllabus.” A Possible Sigma Tau Delta Literary Diversity Approach (Correspondence). Puar, Jasbir, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics” eipcp: europäisches institut für progressive kulturpolitik, 01 2011. Rumore, Martha M., “The Course Syllabus: Legal Contract or Operator’s Manual?” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (2016 Dec 25; 80(10): 177). Ruiz, Iris D., Reclaiming Composition for Chicano/as and other Ethnic Minorities: A Critical History and Pedagogy, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2016. Ruiz, Iris D. Genevieve Garcia de Mueller. Race and Silence in Writing Program Administration: A Qualitative Study. WPA Journal June, 2017. Ruiz, Iris D. and Raúl Sánchez. Eds. Decolonizing Composition and Rhetoric: New Latinx Keywords for Theory and Pedagogy. Palgrave/McMillan, 2016. UCLA. School of Public Affairs Website. June 30, 2017 https://spacrs.wordpress.com/what-is-critical-race-theory
Sample Dartmouth: Designing your Syllabus: Backward Design When you design a syllabus for any course, you begin with the outcomes that you intend for your students to achieve, and you work backwards from these to particular readings and writing assignments. This method, formalized, is called the method of backward design. Backward design is a useful method for any professor in that it ensures that all assignments, readings, and activities will connect students with the outcomes that the professor deems essential to the course. At the first stage of backward design, writing instructors should consider two issues: what they want their students to know/experience in their courses, and what they want them to be able to do, in these courses and afterwards. Put another way, instructors need to think both about their focusing questions and their course outcomes. You'll note that the first issue—what instructors want their students to know/experience—distinguishes between knowledge and experience. Indeed, this distinction is significant in a writing class, where course content (while important) does not drive the course. The best writing classes consider the students' experiential learning in their course design. To accomplish the aims of experiential learning, it's important to come up with a course question that can bring together the many smaller questions of the course and that can engage students intellectually and experientially. For instance: What is happiness? What are the roots of violence? What is the nature of the self? Technology: friend or foe? These are the kinds of questions that can focus course readings and class discussions. They are also the kinds of questions that students can engage with outside of the context of the writing classroom. Finally, they are the kinds of questions around which professors can build a course that is intellectually coherent. Even more important the the course questions, however, are the course outcomes—in other words, what students should be able to do when the course comes to an end. In the first-year writing classes, an instructor's set of outcomes will be informed by the course outcomes (see the outcomes forWriting 2-3,Writing 5, or theFirst-Year Seminar). Take some time to review these outcomes, and to consider how every assignment and classroom activity might work to help students achieve them.
It would seem that the fevered Earth in her delirium has generated antibodies in the form of a crowned virus to cure herself of the cancer that humankind has become upon her body. Forest fires rage on the Amazon, in Australia, in Siberia, in California, everywhere. More frequent and ever more disastrous hurricanes and floods wreak death in all the continents. The poles warm and glaciers melt. The oceans rise. Each day more and more of our relations the other animals, the plants become extinct. Humankind’s hubris has created the tragedy of the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is the Age of Man (humanity) the current geological age “viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” It is a young age by any measure given that the Earth is about 5 billion years old. Shall it be measured from the time of the first appearance of Homo Sapiens in Africa 300,000 years ago? Or from the rise of agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago? Or since 3100 BCE with the institution of the patriarchy in the ancient Near East? Or since patriarchal monotheism with the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in the 6th century BCE? Some argue much more recent dates such as the industrial revolution about 1780, or even closer and more exactly, July 16, 1945, seventy-five years ago with the first test of the atomic bomb when I was ten years old. There is no consensus as to the beginning of the Anthropocene.
I would date the Anthropocene precisely: October 12, 1492, almost five hundred twenty eight years ago when the Europeans who looking for a short route to the wealth of India stumbled upon a portion of the Earth unknown to them.
Thinking they had reached India, they called the native people they encountered “Indians” and called the western hemisphere a “new” world, a virgin land, and immediately set out to possess it in every sense of the word, to steal, violate and rape it, to enslave and kill its people, the “Indians” they called savages. The Europeans came with two ideas quite strange to this “new” world, Abya Yala, Turtle Island, later called “America:” 1) that they held the one and single truth of divinity and 2) that the Earth belonged to humankind — and so they took the land with sword and cross forcing the native people they did not kill to convert to Christianity, most ironically in the name of the invaders’ one, abstract god’s avatar, a young revolutionary rabbi, Yeshua (from whose birth they reckoned time,) who had taught love and compassion, justice and peace.
The European invaders took the land, murdering “Indians” with the gun and the horse but mostly decimating them through the great pandemics the Europeans unwittingly brought with them killing between 10 million and 100 million people, up to 95% of the indigenous population of Abya Yala, the Americas.
Very soon following the invasion of Abya Yala and coinciding with colonization, the economics of Europe was mercantilism that held that wealth was in profitable trade regulated by the crown. With most of the native population decimated by disease and murder, the need for labor in mining, clearing forests, and large-scale farming was needed. Much of the wealth of the Americas was in labor-intensive crops: sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, hemp, tobacco, cotton and the need for cheap labor was met by the importation of slaves from Africa in the beginning of the 17th century. African people, traded for or captured by slave traders, were brought to the Americas and slave trade, its greatest cost being the intense suffering and great death toll of the enslaved Africans, arguably became the most profitable trade of the time.
Two fundamental premises of European belief were 1) that mankind was created in the image of their one patriarchal god and 2) that their god had given mankind mastery over the other creatures (including woman) and had charged him to subdue the Earth. For the European to justify the enslavement of other humans and treat them as cattle, as a commodity, they had to be made “other,” closer to the other animals decreed by their god to be mastered. So subsequently with the growth of capitalism, and especially the Atlantic slave trade, the concept of racism (the belief that some groups of humans are superior to others, that the fair-skinned are superior to the dark-skinned group) arose in the late 18th century.
Mercantilism morphed into capitalism, private ownership of production and trade independent from control by the crown. In practical terms, it means private ownership and unbridled rape of the Earth as merely a source of raw material to be extracted and made into consumable products by cheap labor, slavery in whatever form, for the profit of the capitalist (the owner.) It is the economics of empire. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Thirteen of Britain’s wealthiest colonies in North America declared independence from Britain and the crown that same year claiming Enlightenment ideals of liberty undermined by private greed and the possession of slaves as if of cattle. The reasons for breaking from Britain were more economic than moral.
Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, son of the Enlightenment, exemplifies the conflicted consciousness of many a European-American. In Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” there is an echo of John Locke’s, one of the chief thinkers behind what was to be called capitalism, “life, liberty, and property.” But Jefferson did felicitously write “happiness,” a state not necessarily dependent on property and wealth. And in his original draft, he accused the British king of waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisp[h]ere.” A colleague, Benjamin Franklin, so as not to alienate the slave-holding colonies, struck it from the declaration.
Jefferson owned slaves all his life, and slavery remained intact. The liberty lauded in the Declaration of Independence was limited to white males of certain wealth, not for women, nor “colored” men, nor the poor, and certainly not for the slave. From its beginning, the United States of America was patriarchal, imperialist, racist, capitalist, and governed by a plutocracy. The conflict between human and property rights plagues us to this day.
The Industrial Revolution, begun in England about 1760 with the mechanization of production and intensified with the invention of the cotton gin and the development of the steam engine and then the internal combustion engine for use in mining, the manufacture of cloth and other products, and transportation, and with slavery in the southern U.S. and labor at slave wages in England created great wealth for the owners of land and means of production who would pool their resources in corporations to maximize their wealth and their power — and went about ravaging of the Earth, clearing forests, damming rivers, leveling mountains for minerals, plundering prehistoric forests in the form of coal and oil harbored in Earth’s bowels to fuel wars and more plundering. The burning of the remains of the primeval forests blackened the cities like Manchester and London combining its famous fog with its infamous smoke into smog poisoning the air and warming the atmosphere. And lung diseases and others ran rampant. This they called “Progress.”
Eighty-eight years after the Declaration of Independence, the conflicted consciousness of the young country came to a head with a bloody civil war over the issue of slavery that threatened to sunder the union. The northern states won the war over the slave-owning southern states, the union was preserved, and the slaves were freed (though their citizenship and civil rights were mostly nominal.)
I have spoken of the U.S. and England only because they epitomize the modern empire. But other European nations powered by the industrial revolution also invaded, conquered, plundered, and colonized the Americas, Africa, Asia, Polynesia, Australia. It is a history of the murder and displacement of indigenous peoples and the taking of their lands, of war, and the degradation of the Earth.
Much has been made of the “American Dream” popularly understood as the dream that anyone in the U.S. could achieve, especially by working hard and becoming successful (attained wealth) thereby, it was assumed, attaining happiness. Ironically, the term (by which he meant something very different) was coined by an American historian in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, product of the “Robber Baron” era of the late 1800s, the reckless speculation of capitalists, and the degradation of the mid-west prairies by mechanized agribusiness creating the “dust bowl” making great poverty and waves of migration of workers. The depression was dealt with aptly by one of the most sagacious presidents of the U.S., Franklin D. Roosevelt, with radical policies that remedied the excesses of capitalism and ended with a disastrous Second World War marked by a policy of genocide of the Jewish population by Nazi Germany and the criminal act of unnecessarily dropping two atomic bombs by the U.S. on Japan seventy-five years ago.
The world war that followed was called “The Cold War” because U.S. wars were not officially declared though wars continued. The need of industry to produce for war had created a powerful economic and political interest group, Military-Industrial Complex, which the Republican Pres. Eisenhower, a general and hero, warned was detrimental to democracy. Since the beginning of the nation, capitalism had been conflated with democracy and dissidents who questioned it were called treasonous, repressed and persecuted. One U.S. undeclared war was on a little south Asian country, Viet-Nam whose people were killed, forests were defoliated, rivers poisoned by bombs and chemicals. So unjustified, wasteful, and cruel was the hopeless U.S. war that a great majority of U.S. citizens rose in opposition and the war came to an end. There was hope of change but the reactionary element of the country came to power. The U.S. intervened in other countries, notably in Central and South America, subverted democratically elected governments that questioned predatory capitalism, and propped bloody dictatorships that in the name of fighting communism jailed, tortured, killed their people, and some, as in Guatemala, committed genocide of our indigenous people. Wars, for fossil oil, all justified as “self defense,” were waged in the Middle East destroying people and degrading the environment greatly increasing pollution and heating the atmosphere.
Such is the history that brought us to now and Globalization, the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets. There is where we are and the ultimate result is slavery in its modern form and the devastation of the Earth. Even a profoundly ignorant man, one who does not believe in science or even truth, one who cannot speak without lying will sometimes tell a truth. Trump, the fascistic 45th President of the United States, celebrating the 241st anniversary of U.S. Independence Day, said that “. . . we will protect and preserve [the] American way of life, which began in 1492 when Columbus discovered America.”
That date, I maintain, marks the beginning of the Anthropocene. It is the beginning of the imposition globally of the metaphysical myth of a patriarchal monotheism that posits humankind’s mastery of the Earth, its obligation to populate it, subdue it, master all other of its living creatures.
When the Europeans conquered us of Abya Yala, the Americas, our conquerors were not only the soldiers but also the missionaries. We were forced to convert to their beliefs, our cultures, our traditions were denigrated and the new cosmology so strange to us was imposed upon us. Our myths and ideas of the divine were male and female, our cosmologies did not reduce the Earth and its creatures to mere commodities for the use of us humans. Many of our creator deities were female, most of them if not all, personifications of the Earth. We recognized our relationship to the other animals, and to the plants, and to inanimate beings, as our kindred and helpers, our teachers. Mountains and lakes and springs were holy. The Earth was sacred, our Mother, Pachamama, Tonantzin. As one of our elders, Chief Seattle, told the invaders, “The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth.”
Many of our indigenous cultures were destroyed, our languages lost, our wisdom denied or unheard. Our indigenous peoples have lived for millenniums in harmony with the Earth, with our fellow creatures, our relations, the other animals and plants, and we disturbed little the natural order of things. There is much that they have to teach us. And we must learn to listen.
Myths are important; our myths set the metaphysics by which we relate to the Earth and one another. They form our reality. Even if we do not know our myths, even if we may repudiate them, they still have formed the matrix of our culture and our society and they form more-often-than-not the unconscious premises of our values and institutions that determine how we live our lives, relate to one another, to the Earth.
The greatest power of conquest of the new world may not have been the soldier but the missionary who replaced our myths, our beliefs, with those of Europe, telling us that what mattered was an imagined existence beyond death. The Earth was but a valley of tears through which we passed on our way to the beyond. And, as a friend who was related to the royal family of Hawai’i said to me of the missionaries: “They said, these wooden figures are not gods, pointed up to the sky and said, there is your god, we fools looked up, and they took all our land.”
Since the middle of the last century, the term “decolonization” has gained much currency. What it refers to is the breaking away of the colonies of the empires and the forming of independent states. But as it is being used more and more, it refers to the “decolonization” of the mind, liberation of our indigenous minds from the brain-washing of colonialism. I, of both Mexican Indian and Spanish blood (and for all I know, African) born into a traditional Mexican Catholic family, can attest to the difficulty of the task. But be assured that the conquest of Abya Yala has by no means been completed; the five hundred twenty eight years of conquest has also been five hundred twenty eight years of resistance. We have not gone away. By the same token, in this United States, the war to abolish slavery has not yet been completely won either. Our brothers and sisters of African ancestry to this day are discriminated against and murdered at the hands of the police. The virulence of racism is much ingrained in the culture of the nation, inherited from colonialism and the economics of empire. It is a sickness that, like patriarchy, must be overcome.
I have painted with a broad and select brush a history complex and nuanced. (I will leave it to a Howard Zinn to tell the history that I have not touched upon.) I have focused on the United States of America because that is where I was born and live and because it is the foremost modern empire. I recognize that many of our European brothers and sisters who came to these shores and many of their descendants have been and are of good consciousness and have struggled and do struggle to create a world that is compassionate and just and honors the Earth that holds it. It has always been so since the “discovery of a new World” with such as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and gains have gradually been made to make democracy in the Americas. In the U.S. in my mother’s lifetime women gained the right to vote. In my lifetime our brothers and sisters of African descent gained their civil rights even in the former “slave states” of the South where racism has been most virulent. The right of labor to organize has been a continual struggle with gains to be counted. Gains, too, have been made by our brothers/sisters who differ from the traditional norms in sexuality and gender. Much of those gains have been at great cost of struggle and pain to be sure and we have our martyrs, foremost among them the great visionary and prophet Martin Luther King Jr. (whose dream, by the way, shares many of the elements of “The American Dream” of the historian who coined the term.) Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of the cloth who understood and followed the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth. His was very much a theology of liberation.
I write in the isolation forced upon me by the threat of a deadly disease made even more deadly by the policies of a government headed by men who have dropped all pretense of democracy or justice or compassion, indeed of decency — the poisonous bloom of unbridled capitalism, fascists. The policies of capitalist empire have torn the world with continuous war and concentrated the wealth in the hands of a few creating famine and violence for the many. The effects of reckless violation of the Earth has caused her to become feverish and changed her climate. Great numbers of our brothers and sisters are displaced fleeing violence and poverty and homes devastated by the effects of that climate change. They come to seek asylum to the borders of the wealthy nations whose policies are the very cause of their fleeing only to be jailed and their children caged. My heart is often heavy and I struggle with sadness. (Yes, and with rage.)
But also there is great awakening and my brothers and sisters of good heart and consciousness flood the streets at great risk of infection to demand justice for our African American brothers and sisters and for everyone and for protection of the Earth. They are met with violence, guns and tear gas and clubs by the military sent by the fascist POTUS Trump — day after day. And my brothers and sisters protesting make my heart glad and hopeful and proud. And we make our revolution of mind and of heart for justice rooted in compassion, for peace, for the Earth, for life. But the violence directed against them by federal military and by local police promises a repressive police state and makes me sick with fear as POTUS 45 and his party openly undermine the coming elections. We must continue to take to the streets in protest.
On occasion I don my mask and walk in the ‘hood. It makes me sad to see my neighbors masked and careful to keep their distance, see their smiles only in their eyes. To us human mammals accustomed to the pack, for whom the first communication is the touch, to be denied the kiss, the embrace, even the shaking of hands is a violation of our nature. I wonder what effect it will have on those of us who survive, on our children, our species. But it is summer and the sun is bright, the flowers a riot of color and of scent, and the bees go about their business, butterflies flit about, the birds fly and sing. The Earth and the life she bears are beautiful and precious beyond measure — our revolution is of fierce love that must at all costs prevail. Now.
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
~ Howard Zinn
Rafael Jesús González, Prof. Emeritus of literature and creative writing, was born and raised biculturally/bilingually in El Paso, Texas/Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, and taught at University of Oregon, Western State College of Colorado, Central Washington State University, University of Texas El Paso (Visiting Professor of Philosophy), and Laney College, Oakland, California where he founded the Dept. of Mexican & Latin-American Studies. Also visual artist, he has exhibited in the Oakland Museum of California, the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, and others in the U.S. and Mexico. Nominated thrice for a Pushcart prize, he was honored by the National Council of Teachers of English and Annenberg CPB for his writing in 2003. In 2013 he received a César E. Chávez Lifetime Award and was honored by the City of Berkeley with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 13th Annual Berkeley Poetry Festival 2015. He was named the first Poet Laureate of Berkeley in 2017. Visit <http://rjgonzalez.blogspot.com/>
An excerpt from the book,Loaded A Disarming History of the Second Amendment
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
In the summer of 1970, while I was living and organizing in New Orleans with a women’s study-action group, we discovered that our group had been infiltrated. One of the volunteers who had come to work with our project six months earlier was secretly making detailed reports of our meetings, but with distortions and outright lies, using terms like “extreme,” “fanatic,” “potentially violent.” We were aware that she was a Social Work graduate student at Brandeis University, but had no idea we were the topic of her dissertation or that she was associated with the government-funded Lamberg Center for the Study of Violence. She had also lied to us about her background, claiming that she came from a single-parent family with a working mother in Mobile, Alabama. We had not checked out her history, but it only took one phone call to learn that she came from a wealthy, social register Mobile family. When confronted, she appeared earnestly sorry and tried to convince us that she had been required to report on us in order to continue receiving her stipend, without which she supposedly could not continue her studies at the university.
After her departure, we became caught up in a current of repression and paranoia. One or two or three pale blue New Orleans police cars parked across the street from our building every day. The cops took pictures, and a suspicious, unmarked car with Illinois plates followed us. Older local activists told us the cars’ occupants were “red squad” detectives from the Chicago Police Department. We installed a heavy lock on the flimsy wooden door to our run-down building, but we did not feel safe.
After a week of heavy police surveillance, we began receiving telephone calls from a man claiming to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The man threatened to burn down our building, and, of course, we didn’t trust the police, so we did not report it. Instead, we decided to arm ourselves. We saw it as a practical step, not a political act, something we needed for self-defense in order to continue working, not at all embracing armed struggle, which our group opposed as a strategy for making change in the United States. We knew that law enforcement authorities would think twice about attacking us if they knew we were armed. In reality, we were joining a trend occurring in movement groups across the country at that time, and once armed, our mindsets changed to match the new reality.
Two of us drove across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway to a gun show that was held weekly in a large tin shed on the Slidell fairgrounds. The pickups and vans of traveling gun dealers, with license plates from a dozen states, were parked around the site; I had a cousin in Oklahoma who made his living selling guns that way. Inside the shed, the scene was festive, like any ordinary weekend craft fair or flea market. There were children running and playing, older women sitting on folding chairs visiting with each other, younger women clutching infants and staying close to their men, vendors hawking wares and bargaining, Confederate battle flags waving. Everyone was white. We had no trouble finding the used 9mm automatics we sought. We chose three used Brownings for $100 each, clips included, and a case of military surplus ammunition.
“We’re looking for a shotgun, too,” I said to the dealer. “For protection or duck huntin’?” the vendor asked. “Protection.”
He offered us a Mossberg 500 12-gauge police special riot gun, with a short barrel. “Isn’t it illegal to have this weapon?” I asked. “Ain’t a sawed-off, legal as taxes.” We bought it, along with some buckshot shells, all for cash. No paperwork required. The man who sold us the guns also had for sale a number of swastikas in various forms—pins, arm patches, photographs.
We went to the Tulane Law Library to research Louisiana gun laws and found that there were no gun laws in Louisiana. The only restriction was against building an arsenal—defined as more than twenty automatic or semiautomatic weapons—for illegal purposes. Carrying concealed and loaded weapons within the state with no registration was entirely legal. Federal laws prohibited transporting firearms across state lines for sale or to commit a crime, possession of stolen weapons, removal of serial numbers, and various foreign weapons, such as the AK-47.
We kept the loaded shotgun at the door, and we joined an indoor shooting gallery at Lafayette Square. We practiced with the Brownings every day. Shotguns weren’t allowed at the shooting club, but a shotgun took no skill to fire, only nerve and a steady shoulder. Soon after, we acquired rifles and joined a rifle club in the West Bank area. We loaded the bed of our station wagon with four M-1s, a Winchester .22, a .30-30 with a scope, and the riot shotgun, all purchased at the gun shows in Slidell. We paid for membership in the National Rifle Association and affixed their red and black emblem to the back window of the car. Cops were known to not stop vehicles with the stickers, although that probably didn’t work for African Americans.
We acquired more small arms and went daily to the Lafayette Square pistol shooting gallery to practice. In addition to the Brownings, we now owned a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .357, an S&W long-barrel .38, a Walther PPK 9mm, a Colt .45, and a Beretta .32 automatic. We’d purchased all the weapons legally and anonymously at gun shows. We soon had a closet full of guns, plus our new shotgun reloading equipment and a 100-pound bag of gunpowder.
We spent hours every day breaking down, cleaning, oiling, and polishing our weapons. We took turns loading shotgun shells. We had fallen under the spell of guns. Our relationship to them had become a kind of passion that was inappropriate to our political objectives, and it ended up distorting and determining them.
Knowing that the FBI intercepted our mail, and wanting to inform authorities that we were fully armed, I wrote to my father about my new hobbies—guns and gunsmithing. Ironically, it seemed the first thing I’d done in my life that he really understood and supported. “When you can shoot a squirrel in the eye with a .22 at forty yards on the first shot, you’ll be a shooter,” he wrote.
He must have been pleasantly surprised, because he knew that as a child I was terrified of his Remington .22 rifle and shotgun; I got it from my mother, who hated guns. I never asked her why, but she put the fear and hate in my sister and me. Notwithstanding her objections, my two older brothers followed our father. At adolescence, each one started hunting and brought home game, which was our major meat item. We were poor, and ammunition was expensive, so they all had to be good shots, practicing on bottles and cans with BB guns for years before they handled real firearms. It was all for hunting, practical, but there was that other element I could detect but not explain, until I fell in love with guns.
Gun-love can be akin to non-chemical addictions like gambling or hoarding, either of which can have devastating effects, mainly economic, but murder, suicide, accidental death, and mass shootings result only from guns. Guns are made for killing, and while nearly anything, including human hands, may be used to kill, only the gun is created for the specific purpose of killing a living creature. The sheer numbers of guns in circulation, and the loosening of regulations on handguns especially, facilitate deadly spur of-the-moment reflex acts. The Trace, a nonprofit news organization focused on gun violence found that cases of road rage involving a firearm have more than doubled in two years, from 247 in 2014 to 620 in 2016. Research from Gunwatch suggests that “more guns in more cars may simply equate to more road rage incidents in which a gun was brandished, or fired.”1* At the time of my gun-love, which lasted about two years in the early 1970s, approximately half of all homes in the United States contained a weapon—112 million in total—but nearly a half century later, only a third of households contained firearms, which sounds like progress.2 Yet the number of guns privately owned in the United States had reached more than 300 million, a number equal to the total population. The reality is that in the early twenty-first century, each gun owner possessed an average of eight guns.
It seems that our group, and others, during the years that the Vietnam War was playing out live on our televisions, were in the vanguard of a trend of owning multiple weapons. Army and Navy surplus clothing accompanied the trend, which was soon replaced by sweatshop-produced camouflage garb to meet consumer demand. Something else was also at work, which will be probed in the following chapters.
In 1970, at the time of my own gun phase, the then-celebrated U.S. historian Richard Hofstadter coined the term gun culture. “Many otherwise intelligent Americans cling with pathetic stubbornness to the notion that the people’s right to bear arms is the greatest protection of their individual rights and a firm safeguard of democracy—without being in the slightest perturbed by the fact that no other democracy in the world observes any such ‘right’ and that in some democracies in which citizens’ rights are rather better protected than in ours, such as England and the Scandinavian countries, our arms control policies would be considered laughable.”3
Hofstadter narrates the historical roots that might explain the violence wrought by civilian gun use, but argues that other European countries were surely as violent. In one brief paragraph, he dismisses the Second Amendment as having any validity in constitutional law: “By its inclusion in the Bill of Rights, the right to bear arms thus gained permanent sanction in the nation, but it came to be regarded as an item on the basic list of guarantees of individual liberties. Plainly it was not meant as such. The right to bear arms was a collective, not an individual, right, closely linked to the civic need for ‘a well regulated Militia.’ It was, in effect, a promise that Congress would not be able to bar the states from doing whatever was necessary to maintain well-regulated militias.”4
Did Hofstadter believe that these astute “founding fathers” mistakenly threw in the Second Amendment to a Bill of Rights that was about individual rights? Hofstadter does note, without discussion, that the first draft of the Virginia Constitution of 1776—Thomas Jefferson’s work, which preceded the writing of the U.S. Constitution by nine years—included the individual right to bear arms, stating: “No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” Did Jefferson make a mistake in Virginia, and then contribute to another mistake, making the right to bear arms an individual right in the U.S. Constitution? Hofstadter attributes these “flaws” in Jefferson and the other founders to “reverting to one of the genial fictions . . . the ancient Saxon militia.”
Killing, looting, burning, raping, and terrorizing Indians were traditions in each of the colonies long before the Constitutional Convention. “Militias,” as in government-controlled units, were institutionalized by Article I, Section 8, Clause 15 of the U.S. Constitution, and were used to officially invade and occupy Native land. But the Second Amendment (like the other ten amendments) enshrined an individual right. The Second Amendment’s language specifically gave individuals and families the right to form volunteer militias to attack Indians and take their land. Asserting this scattershot guess about the origin of the Second Amendment, Hofstadter offers no tie-in between this genealogy and the astronomical number of guns possessed in this country. So he settles on the National Rifle Association: “American legislators have been inordinately responsive to the tremendous lobby maintained by the National Rifle Association, in tandem with gunmakers and importers, military sympathizers, and far-right organizations. A nation that could not devise a system of gun control after its experiences of the 1960s [referring to the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy], and at a moment of profound popular revulsion against guns, is not likely to get such a system in the calculable future. One must wonder how grave a domestic gun catastrophe would have to be in order to persuade us. How far must things go?”
Hofstadter’s argument is important, not just because he was an influential liberal historian of the United States who penned the classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” but because his arguments about guns in 1970 have been used and repeated, like a mantra, ever since. Then, as now, gun-rights advocates and gun-control advocates have little basis for communicating. The great divide reflects, rather remarkably, the persistence of pro-gun narratives that have morphed as times changed over two centuries, from westward expansion, industrialization, and urbanization, to the advent of movies, television, and the Internet. Gun ownership appears irrational if not insane to gun-control advocates, while gun lovers rely on the Second Amendment, because they have no other argument and don’t wish to admit, perhaps even to themselves, what the Second Amendment signifies. Neither party seems to have any idea what the Second Amendment was originally about, although many who “cling to their guns”5 intuit why.
This blind spot, as well as the racism and erasure of history, can be seen in the following example. After retiring, the late Warren E. Burger, who served as the fifteenth chief justice of the United States from 1969 to 1986, wrote a long and impassioned plea for gun control, arguing that the Second Amendment was dated and no longer valid. Significantly, he published his commentary in Parade magazine, not a law journal. “Let’s look at the history,” Burger wrote. “First, many of the 3.5 million people living in the 13 original Colonies depended on wild game for food, and a good many of them required firearms for their defense from marauding Indians.”6
There is no doubt that the United States is exceptional among wealthy nations—and even many poorer nations—in legal permissiveness about gun ownership, as well as in gun deaths per capita. By 2016, nearly all the states allowed open carry for firearms with various limitations regarding licensing, loaded or unloaded, weapons training or not, gun types, and so on. The holdouts not allowing open carry were California, Illinois, Florida, and the District of Columbia. Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey allow open carry for handguns but prohibit open carry of long guns, while New York and South Carolina allow open carry for long guns but prohibit open carry for handguns.7
Total gun deaths in the United States average around 37,000 a year, with two-thirds of those deaths being suicides, leaving approximately 12,000 homicides, a thousand of those at the hands of the police.8 Mass shootings—ones that leave four or more people wounded or dead—now occur in the United States, on average, at the pace of one or more per day.9 Disturbing as that fact is, mass shootings currently account for only 2 percent of gun killings annually.10 The number of gun deaths—37,000—is roughly equal to death-by-vehicle incidents in the United States per year. To lawfully drive a vehicle, a person must acquire and maintain a driver’s license and drive a car that is registered and insured. A car owner may be fined for driving with a visible safety flaw on the vehicle, such as a taillight out, and a driver may be stopped at any time by authorities and can easily lose the right to drive, among other restrictions. The high rate of traffic fatalities begs the question of how effective gun restrictions would be. Heavy drinking while driving causes nearly three times as many deaths as guns each year in the United States, despite restrictions on the buying, selling, and public use of alcohol. It is necessary to look elsewhere for what causes firearms proliferation and gun deaths; it is necessary to seek out the historical roots.
With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the Democratic Party platform for the first time included gun control, while the Republican Party platform opposed gun control, proclaiming: “We note that those who seek to disarm citizens in their homes are the same liberals who tried to disarm our Nation during the Cold War and are today seeking to cut our national defense below safe levels.”11 In the previous three presidential elections, neither the Republican Party nor Democratic Party platforms had mentioned guns at all. With the Democrats in control of the White House and Congress in 1993, there was no trouble passing a gun-control bill requiring background checks, commonly called the “Brady Bill” after Jim Brady, who was wounded and permanently disabled during the shooting of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Brady’s wife, Sarah, had campaigned tirelessly for background checks, which did result in a bill that was introduced in Congress in 1987, but the measure lingered without action until it was signed into law in 1993. The following year, Congress passed a ban on assault weapons but in 2004, when the statute was up for renewal, it was allowed to lapse, as it had proved largely ineffectual and unenforceable. Georgetown University law professor David Cole writes: “It is remarkably difficult to define an ‘assault weapon.’ They are semiautomatic, which means they fire a new bullet with each trigger pull, while automatically reloading. But most guns made today are semiautomatic, so the ban on assault weapons focused on the cosmetic military appearance of certain guns, and was easily evaded by alterations in design. Moreover, while gun-rights proponents are hard-pressed to offer a legitimate reason for civilians to own assault weapons, they are used in a very small proportion of gun crimes. Most crimes involve ordinary handguns.”12 Professor Cole finds a common thread of arguments condemning the National Rifle Association and does not question the organization’s powerful role, which relies on a strong electoral base throughout the country, but issues this caution:
Gun control advocates will not make progress until they recognize that the NRA’s power lies in the appeal of its ideas, its political engagement and acumen, and the intense commitments of its members. Until gun control advocates can match these features, they are unlikely to make much progress. That the gun industry may have helped construct modern gun culture does not negate the very real power that culture holds today.13
Indeed, the N.R.A. has around 5 million dues-paying members, and many millions more who support N.R.A. calls for legislative action. The N.R.A. annual budget is $300 million, only 10 percent of which goes to direct lobbying. The N.R.A. does little lobbying, but rather follows and grades every political candidate on gun rights and calls for supporting or campaigning against the candidate accordingly; it focuses on state legislators, who make most gun laws; gun-rights activists tend to focus on Congress. The N.R.A. has active affiliates in many communities in every state, with an average membership of 100,000 per state.
While Cole recommends that we look for the reasons why guns have such strong appeal in the United States in comparison with other societies, he does not explore those reasons. That is the purpose of this book. However, instead of dismissing the Second Amendment as antiquated and irrelevant, or as not actually meaning what it says, I argue that understanding the purpose of the Second Amendment is key to understanding the gun culture of the United States, and possibly the key to a new consciousness about the lingering effects of settler-colonialism and white nationalism. The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is a simple statement: A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The National Rifle Association and its constituency argue that the Second Amendment guarantees the right for every individual to bear arms, while gun-control advocates maintain, as did Hofstadter, that the Second Amendment is about states continuing to have their own militias—emphasizing the language of “well regulated”—and that this is manifest in the existing National Guard.14
However, the respective state militias were already authorized by the U.S. Constitution when the amendment was added. The Constitution recognized the existing colonial, now state, militias that formed before and during the War for Independence, and mandated to them vital roles to play: “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasion” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 15). The President of the United States is the commander-in-chief of the state militias “when called into the actual Service of the United States” (Article II, Section 2).15
Given that what are now the states’ National Guards are descended from state militias, which themselves were repurposed from colonial militias, why was the Second Amendment added as one of the enumerated rights of man in the Bill of Rights? Unequivocally, the Second Amendment, along with the other nine amendments, constituted individual rights, and the militias referenced are voluntary, not state militias.
One argument that runs through historical accounts of the thinking behind the Second Amendment is the one Hofstadter settled on, that Thomas Jefferson romanticized old English-Saxon rural militias, idealizing his “yeoman” farmers as fiercely independent and rightly fearing Big Brother government, insisting on settlers’ right to overthrow oppressive regimes. But, what colonists considered oppressive was any restriction that British authorities put on them in regard to obtaining land. In the instances of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676,16 the War of Independence itself, and many cases in between, the settlers’ complaint was the refusal of the British colonial authorities to allow them to seize Native land peripheral to the colonies, which could lead to unnecessary and expensive war. Historian Charles Sellers wrote: “Cheap land, held absolutely under the seaboard market’s capitalist conception of property, swelled patriarchal honor to heroic dimensions in rural America. The father’s authority rested on his legal title to the family land. Where European peasant landholdings were usually encumbered with obligations to some elite, the American farmer held in fee simple. Supreme in his domain, he was beyond interference by any earthly power. Except for a modest tax and an occasional half-day of neighborhood roadwork or carousing militia drill, he owed no obligations of labor, money, service, or (finally) religious fealty to any person or entity. Fee-simple land, the augmenting theater of the patriarchal persona, sustained his honor and untrammeled will. This extraordinary independence inflated American farmers’ conception of their class far above peasantry.”17 ……………..
As a whole, this book attempts to confront fundamental aspects of U.S. history that continue to be too often overlooked or denied, and which can be traced back to the original meaning and intention of the Second Amendment. It aims to confront the violence implicit in U.S. society from the moment of its conception, and the various narratives and forces that have taken shape to deny the consequences of that violence by popularizing and commercializing it. The book also aims to acknowledge the families, traditions, memories, and resistance of Indigenous People and African Americans whose lands and lives the Second Amendment was forged to take.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farming family. She is the author of manybooks,includingthe acclaimedAnIndigenousPeoples’ HistoryoftheUnitedStates (featured here in Somos en escrito), RedDirt:GrowingUpOkie,Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico, and Bloodon theBorder:AMemoiroftheContra War. Shelivesin SanFrancisco.
Loaded A Disarming History of the Second Amendment is published by City Lights Books, San Francisco. For copies, go to Loaded_CityLightsBooks.
* All footnotes cited here can be found in the printed book.