Friday, June 30, 2017

Huppenthal, History and Ethnic Studies

Posted By on Fri, Jun 30, 2017 at 3:45 PM

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The Mexican American Studies trial is a trip down memory lane for me, especially with former Education Superintendent John Huppenthal on the stand. Back when he was using his two aliases, Thucydides and Falcon 9, to comment on blogs across the state, my posts were on the receiving end of much of his anonymous wit, wisdom and, well, idiocy. After all, I write mostly about education, and dozens of my posts were about TUSD's Mexican American Studies battles, so it was natural for his alter egos to defend his corporeal self against what I was writing.

I looked back through some of my old posts and came across something I wrote in 2010 when Huppenthal first ran for superintendent. He was in Tucson for a candidates' forum, and I was there with my recorder. One of his favorite subjects on the stump was the evils of the Mexican American Studies program, a topic he inherited from his predecessor Tom Horne. Huppenthal talked about his experience sitting in on an MAS class.
"My first-hand classroom encounter clearly revealed an unbalanced, politicized and historically inaccurate view of American History being taught."
He said he was upset that MAS classes gave students a distorted view of people like Ben Franklin, who was condemned for owning slaves. Then he gave his own rendition of Franklin's bio, one of those classic Huppenthal fact-and-fiction tossed salads I read so often in his blog commentaries.
"Ben Franklin . . . was the president of the Abolitionist Society in Pennsylvania, he led the fight against the slave trade, successfully stopping the slave trade. He freed all of his own slaves, and not only freed them but gave them positions of responsibility so that they could grow into leaders."
Huppenthal's depiction of Franklin revealed his own unbalanced, politicized, historically inaccurate view of history. I'm sure he derived a great deal of satisfaction from his portrayal of Franklin. It was history told by winners for historical winners like himself. Bits and pieces of his thought stream are accurate. Franklin was the president of Pennsylvania's Abolitionist Society (he was 82 at the time), but that was years after the state ended its slave trade. Franklin freed his slaves, but he kept them and profited from their labor for years after he took up the abolitionist cause. As for giving them "positions of responsibility so that they could grow into leaders," well, Franklin advocated for education of black people. He believed they had as much intellectual potential as whites. But so far as I can tell, Huppenthal's protestation that Franklin gave his ex-slaves positions of responsibility so they would grow into leaders is his own construct designed to transform Franklin into the untarnished, heroic Founding Father Huppental wants him to be.

Huppenthal's Franklin hagiography is a powerful advertisement for the need for ethnic studies programs. "Ben is a great man, period," he asserts. "Why tarnish the man's greatness by emphasizing minor flaws? He was one of the good slave owners, let's leave it at that." Huppenthal doesn't want to hear the response, "Franklin owned slaves! They were his property to do with as he pleased, simply because they were black. Washington was a slave owner as well. So was Jefferson." Anyone who wants to understand historical and present day America has to wrestle with slavery, America's original sin, in all its manifestations. That's one of the things ethnic studies programs are designed to do, which makes them a threat to Huppenthal's world view.

I learned a sanitized version of American history when I was in school which distorted my understanding of our country's origins. I don't remember when I learned our Founding Fathers owned slaves and had the range of human weaknesses common to "great men," but it certainly wasn't during my K-12 education. I would have benefited from some ethnic studies education when I was younger to counterbalance the historical inaccuracies and outright lies I was taught. Now I'm trying to correct my school-fed ignorance on my own time.

I recently finished one of the most revelatory books I've read in years,The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2008 and the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2009. The book is about the slave family owned by Thomas Jefferson, which included Sally Hemings whom Jefferson bedded when he was 46 and she was 16 and continued to have a relationship with throughout his life, fathering a number of children by her. The book's emphasis on the slave family shifts the story away from Jefferson, who occupies a secondary role as the man who owns the Hemingses instead of his usual position as a great many who happens to own a collection of nameless, featureless slaves. The story is rich and detailed. It added volumes to my meager knowledge of the story and shattered a multitude of misconceptions. It's also a well written narrative that kept me turning pages even though I'm not much of a reader of history. I can't recommend it too highly.

A few highlights. Before reading the book, when I imagined Sally Hemings, a 16 year old slave in 1789, I didn't see a young woman who was "mighty near white" with "straight hair down her back," but that's how she was described by someone who knew her. Her appearance wasn't surprising given her ancestry. Sally's grandmother had a white father. Her mother had a white father as well. That means Sally was genetically three-quarters white, one-quarter black. And that also means when she had children by Thomas Jefferson, they were seven-eighths white, one-eighth black. In Virginia at the time, that made them legally white. According to the book, "All of Jefferson's children with Hemings were said to resemble him, one of the sons so much that a person coming upon the young man at dusk dressed as Jefferson would have assumed that it was Jefferson himself." Yet Jefferson kept the children at Monticello as slaves — well-treated slaves, often doted on by their father, but slaves nonetheless.

Jefferson's wife Martha died years before he took up with Sally. Martha and Sally, mistress and slave, were kin. In fact, they were sisters who shared the same father but had different mothers, one free and white, the other black and enslaved. (I guess you could refer to them as half sisters, but when I know two women who grew up in the same house and have the same father and different mothers, I think of them as sisters, so for me, "sisters" is the correct term for Martha and Sally.) Sally was the aunt of Martha and Thomas's children who she tended as a slave/caretaker. The worlds of the Hemings and the Jeffersons were intimately intertwined. It was a family affair. It's very possible that part of Jefferson's attraction to the 16 year old Sally was that he saw his dead wife in her features and mannerisms.

The Hemingses of Monticello has many more layers than I can go into here, with stories about the rest of the Hemings family, about Jefferson's foibles and weaknesses, about the small world surrounding Monticello and the larger world of American laws and politics. It reveals some of the inner workings of America's original sin which I never learned in the sanitized version of history I was fed, and it adds shades and complexities to the starker vision of oppressed field slaves and their brutal masters and overseers. It's not surprising that the author is an African American woman. I don't know if someone white or male could have told the story with as much intensity and insight.

Huppenthal's campaign against Mexican American Studies and his often vile and racist anonymous comments on blog posts reveal his own fear of a necessary corrective to a sanitized view of American history, and the popularity of his views reveals the need for more, not less, ethnic studies, both infused into the standard school curriculum and taught as separate courses.

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