Wednesday, February 15, 2012

'A People's History of the United States' Comes to Life

The school is Team En­gle­wood High School, lo­cated in one of the city's poor­est com­mu­ni­ties, and the stu­dents are part of a group that will per­form a local spin­off per­for­mance of Howard Zinn's A Peo­ple's His­tory of the United States in the spring. The adults are a small group of movie stars, rap­pers, pub­li­cists, pho­tog­ra­phers, pro­duc­ers, teach­ers, and re­porters.

And, no pres­sure, but they've all come to hear what Team En­gle­wood's seven se­niors have to say.

As part of the pro­mo­tion for a new ed­u­ca­tion ini­tia­tive based on Zinn's book, Matt Damon and Lupe Fi­asco, both of whom ap­peared in the 2009 doc­u­men­tary, The Peo­ple Speak, have come to Chicago to per­form in a ben­e­fit show and to talk to the En­gle­wood stu­dents about Amer­i­can his­tory and hear them per­form some of their own pieces.

"If [stu­dents] can con­nect to these his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, hope­fully they will see them­selves as part” of his­tory, Damon said, touch­ing on one of the cen­tral goals of Zinn’s work—and of the non­profit Voices of a Peo­ple’s His­tory of the United States, which has cre­ated a cur­ricu­lum based on Zinn’s book. The group’s mis­sion is to “bring to light lit­tle known voices from U.S. his­tory,” in­clud­ing those of in­ner-city stu­dents of color. As part of this goal, they are rolling out an ed­u­ca­tor’s toolkit for 1,000 teach­ers in Chicago, com­plete with videos, les­son plans, and lo­cally rel­e­vant read­ings.

“We se­lect ma­te­r­ial from the past that speaks to the pre­sent,” said Brenda Cough­lin, founder and di­rec­tor of the non­profit. “We want stu­dents and peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ties to be able to … say to young peo­ple: you make his­tory.”

“We’re ex­pand­ing the no­tion of what lit­er­a­ture is: a canon for the peo­ple, of the peo­ple,” says Kevin Coval, a hip-hop poet, ed­u­ca­tor and co-founder of the teen po­etry fes­ti­val Louder Than A Bomb, who is over­see­ing the pro­ject in Chicago. Stu­dents will be asked to re­spond to speeches from So­journer Truth, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, and oth­ers with their own text in their own words.

“It’s re­ally nice to hear you guys own your own voices and have power,” Damon tells the group. Hav­ing grown up next door to Zinn in Boston, he says bring­ing the pro­ject to life with the voices of stu­dents is par­tic­u­larly ex­cit­ing for him. Damon, who was in el­e­men­tary school when A Peo­ple’s His­tory was first re­leased, in 1980, brought the book to class on Colum­bus Day that year, and read from the first chap­ter on in­dige­nous peo­ple.

A key mes­sage of Zinn’s work, Damon told the stu­dents, is that “change al­ways, al­ways comes from the bot­tom up.” It’s up to any­one “at the bot­tom to ag­i­tate and de­mand what is due to them.”

For stu­dents like those at Team En­gle­wood High School, the em­pow­er­ment as­pect is cen­tral. The En­gle­wood neigh­bor­hood led the city in homi­cides last year, and, ac­cord­ing to the Chicago News Co­op­er­a­tive, about 32 per­cent of res­i­dents live below the poverty line.

“It touches me that you guys would come here to En­gle­wood and do work like this,” said Jerome Wade, 17, who said he was born and raised in En­gle­wood. “The first thing [about En­gle­wood] that comes to your mind is gangs, but it isn’t only like that. You may not have the funds to do some­thing, but every­one has a voice.”

The stu­dent’s ex­cite­ment at the celebrity ap­pear­ance—and at sim­ply being lis­tened to—says Chicago-born-and-bred rap­per Lupe Fi­asco, “shows the op­pres­sion of their voices and their ex­pe­ri­ences.”

The pro­gram also hopes to chal­lenge a con­tentious trend in ed­u­ca­tion: the push to edit out parts of his­tory. In Ari­zona, eth­nic stud­ies were banned and de­funded be­cause of al­le­ga­tions of “eth­nic chau­vin­ism,” while a con­ser­v­a­tive group in Ten­nessee wants to re­move any men­tion of the Found­ing Fa­thers being slave own­ers from text­books.

In con­trast, the cur­ricu­lum is meant to be an an­ti­dote to much of main­stream his­tory, which “teaches a wa­tered-down ver­sion of the vic­tors,” says Coval.

Yana Ku­ni­choff wrote this ar­ti­cle for YES! Mag­a­zine, a na­tional, non­profit media or­ga­ni­za­tion that fuses pow­er­ful ideas with prac­ti­cal ac­tions. Yana is a Chicago-based jour­nal­ist with Truthout.​org and The Chicago Re­porter, where she re­ports on pol­i­tics, im­mi­gra­tion, and any­thing going down in the streets.

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