Recognizing Days of Anti-Oppression in U.S. History

August 14, 2008 at 4:48 am 2 comments

There are many days in our calendar when the United States has an official or unofficial day of remembering important people in the development of the United States. There are some good (read: Martin Luther King, Jr.) and some bad (read: Christopher Columbus) that we are asked to remember and celebrate. However, the histories of these figures are usually distorted into two-dimensional memories. In our national celebration, we are taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the “new world” and that he “made all of this possible.” If it is mentioned at all, it is only mentioned in passing, that Columbus’s arrival to the Americas marked the beginning of an orchestrated genocide, slavery, and oppression of entire peoples (in addition to the spread of diseases that some historians estimate killed up to 90% of American Indians that were inhabiting the continents). As well, Martin Luther King, Jr. is painted as a pure pacifist who gave great speeches and put on some marches – instead of a community organizer, an educator, an agitator, whose views and rebellions took different shapes and tones throughout time. In short, we are left with historical figures without any histories – just figures that were stagnant in history. Often (but of course not always) these people are told in cut and paste stories. Their complex histories, the nuances, the controversies and conflicts, the true impact of their actions, the movements that they were part of, and so much more are all lost in the attempt to tell a singular, national story.

I think that many things could be done about this: including taking these days and altering what they stand for. For instance, Hampshire College students of color, international students, and allies recently led a series of protests, workshops, teach-ins, and so on to demand that the college become an actively anti-racist institution. One of their demands for the college was to shut down regular operations on Martin Luther King Day and Columbus Day to hold campus wide teach-ins about racism and imperialism. This is an absolutely amazing idea and should be implemented by other organizations and institutions (or at least to hold such work shops and so on during near-by days).

Another great idea is to recognize currently ignored or under appreciated days, events, and people in U.S. history surrounding anti-oppression themes. Free schools, and other organizations or institutions, could recognize such histories by holding workshops, classes, teach-ins, discussions, lectures, film screenings, a combination of these things, and so on. Hopefully, one point of this would be to create dialogue and discussion about these people/events/days – and for what reasons they happened, in what context they happened, in what ways their histories have been represented, and what impact they have had on our worlds today. These do not all have to be things that everyone agree were purely “good” – but were a part of a history in the context of standing up to or fighting against oppression.

There are a great deal of event/days/people that could be included in this, but I’m going to name a few now and hopefully some more later. Can you think of any to add?

  • Harriet Tubman
  • Ceaser Chavez
  • The raid on Harper’s Ferry (note: this isn’t just John Brown, but was an event that included hundreds of individuals – including Brown, freedpeople, slaves, abolitionists, and more).
  • Malcolm X
  • Sitting Bull
  • Wounded Knee (1890 and 1973)
  • Stone Wall
  • Huey Newton/Fred Hampton
  • Worker Strikes/The formation of the IWW
  • Shay’s Rebellion
  • Nat Turner’s Rebellion

There are of course many more, but these were a few that came off the top of my head. These could be small workshops, or other events of varying size, directed over an assortment of days and times that correspond with these histories. Understanding the histories of people standing up against oppression, and why they did it and what has happened since then, is extremely important to understanding the world that we inhabit today.


Entry filed under: Anti-Oppression and Free Schools, Related To Free Schooling. Tags: , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. victoriatravels  |  September 14, 2008 at 8:39 am

    It’s also worth thinking about regional holidays. My cousin from SF never had Columbus Day; it was always called ‘Indigenous People’s Day’ and thus the focus was more on oppression and social crimes. And of course, us northerners are familiar with the Civil War, which is apparently called The War of Northern Oppression in the south. Those are the only two examples I know of, but it’s interesting how history is contested within one country.

  • 2. Kirstin  |  January 17, 2010 at 6:51 am

    What about having teach-in days to celebrate and educate more about the Deaf? Review the protests that happened in 1988 at Gallaudet University in Maryland and look back at the oppression of the those who are deaf. The same could be said for those who are blind.


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