How To Censor Voice

January 18, 2012
Yakama Mission

However you might take it, a banning of books or “The books… have been moved to the district storage facility because the classes have been suspended,” what is true is students in Arizona have lost the opportunity to formally, intentionally, and critically engage in conversation concerning ethnic studies.

A year ago a law went into effect as a result of Arizona Superintendent (of) Public Instruction John Huppenthal ruling that would ban “classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, encourage resentment toward a race or a class of people, are designed solely for students of a certain ethnicity and advocate for ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of students as individuals.”  Last summer Huppenthal announced the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) “Mexican American studies program was illegal,” and that he found a number of texts used in the program were troubling.  A few of the troubling books that have been removed from TUSD classrooms are Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years by Bill Bigelow.  Rethinking Columbus gives voice to such writers as Leslie Marmon—”Ceremony,” Suzan Shown Harjo—”We Have No Reason to Celebrate,” and Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday and his “The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee.”

When speaking on the Doctrine of Discovery I often mention we need a new way of understanding our history and make a statement something along the lines that “after all, history is written by those who win the war.”  The statement is not new and most people give an affirmative shake of the head.  We get it; we understand that it is those with power who have the opportunity to write history.  What we miss is history is also being written by the subjugated, the oppressed, and the colonized.  However, their voice does not carry far beyond themselves and their supporters because those whom the dominate structure gives power does allow it.  Give it some thought, how many of us who are adults had the opportunity in grade school, high school, or college to become familiar with writers such as Paulo Freire, Leslie Marmon, Suzan Shown Harjo, or N. Scott Momaday?  What we are watching in Arizona could easily become a case study of how dominate culture halts and removes those voices who dare propose another way of understanding history, life, and landscape.

*Censored News: Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights:

© David B. Bell 2012


  1. I studied Sociology and graduated from Arizona State University a few years ago…I found the college level courses were captivating and engaging…and very open to expression of, and respect for ethnic diversity.

    I also moved away from Arizona because I was sick of the hatred and intolerance voiced by so many White people…. It seems that xenophobia is rife, and that when limited resources are limited, people act to preserve their own. I understand that, I can intellectualize it, but it also hurts in my heart to know and see that so many “people” are on the short end of the stick and have a more difficult life because of it.

    I enjoyed your post. I think we’re in trouble as a people when we prohibit our children from learning about diversity in school, as home is often a stronger influence…and we don’t always learn best at home.

    Anyway…thank you….


    1. Well said! It seems to me, when folk begin to understand that the act to preserve their own includesthe preservation of their neighbor’s culture, we will begin to experience a richness in our landscape we only imagine now. Thank you for your insight!


  2. Dave, I appreciate your affirmation that events are experienced in different ways depending on how people are involved in the event. It is true that one of the important factors in every episode is the power equation, and this equation does result, as you point out, in a bias toward the winners in many history books. As we read histories, we need to pay serious attention to this issue. The strong tradition of revisionist history, however, indicates that new attempts to understand events can lead to sharply different understanding. Often, these historical accounts are written by people who use evidence that had been ignored, suppressed, or under-valued by previous writers. Sometimes, these new histories are, in fact, written by those who had lost the war. Maybe this is one reason why I have found the statement that “history is written by the winners” problematic. Of course, it may also be that since I am white, male, middle-class, and professional I am by definition “a winner” and therefore always defensive, never objective, always oblivious to the other side. If that is the case, then there is really no point in my doing any kind of historical work.


    1. Keith, finally got on the other side of this week’s sermon, able to have a cup of coffee, watch the snowfall and reflect on your thoughts.

      I think the trick for all white American writers who focus on history is being aware their worldview is always getting in the way of objective writing. There are no way we—white, middle-class, male, raised in the U.S.—can fully enter into a piece of writing with unencumbered objectivity. We cannot help but carry a piece of manifest destiny and a piece of privilege with us as we write about the world around us, whether it is historical or current. However, we can be aware of this mindset and strive to find balance in our writing and storytelling. This is why, for me, I strive to be accountable to the voice of color, the voice of poverty, the voice of other. To be accountable, for me, is to give preference to this voice. Preference is a strong word, but I figure if I intentionally give preference to these voices, then perhaps they will help balance my manifest mindset and give my writing a sense of symmetry. I feel I seldom, if ever, achieve such evenness, but I believe that should my (or your) voice not be at the table, then we (community) are no better off.

      However, in our current society we never really need to fear that we will not have a seat at the table. And that is the problem with Huppenthal’s ruling and Arizona law. For it does not allow for American Indian voices such as Leslie Marmon Silko (I just noticed I did not include Leslie’s last name in the posting) and Simon Ortiz or Latino(a) voices such as Sandra Cisneros and Octavio Paz Lozano to enter the conversation at an important time in the education of our youth.

      So, I believe we keep writing while arguing the table must be bigger and more diverse.


  3. Dave, thank you for continuing to help me hear those other voices. Without meaning to, it is so easy to forget they are there.


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