Media Literacy

The Soldiers You Never Learned About in School

Seven years ago, the Texas Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum that fosters inflexible and close minded conservative political viewpoints. Five years later, the New York Times published a story of a Texas high school student and his mother calling attention to a line in a textbook that described the Atlantic slave trade as bringing “millions of workers” to plantations in the South. Millions of workers? Not Slaves?

Regarding school textbooks, what happens in Texas unfortunately doesn’t stay in Texas. Because they are so big, the state is very influential as a market and publishers tend to angle books toward whatever they want (including matters of science). Reading about Texas got me to thinking about the things I didn’t learn in school. While I thankfully had quite a few progressive teachers (in the sixth grade, one noted how African Americans and Puerto Ricans were put on the front lines during the Vietnam conflict), I also had those who still conveyed imperialistic, manifest destiny points of view (in the eighth grade one described Native Americans as awed by Europeans because “their hair was the color of gold.”) Noteworthy people of color were generally not part of my education growing up.

Media literacy has been on my mind a lot lately, most notably with regards to how minority groups are portrayed. The negative images are ubiquitous and have mythic power. You don’t need much education to comprehend an image. Visibility fosters understanding and unity. Writing this on the eve of Memorial Day 2017, I got to thinking about soldiers of color. If military service to the country is a metric for outstanding citizenship, and seen as a noteworthy contribution, then why didn’t I learn about soldiers of color growing up? Their contributions were significant. I would like to honor three groups of soldiers of color whose histories may be even further buried by the direction this country is going.

The Borinqueneers

The 65th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Borinqueneers, was created in 1899 by Congress as a segregated unit composed of Puerto Ricans. The regiment served in the two World Wars as well as the Korean Conflict. The unit was named after the word given to Puerto Rico by its native Tainos that means, “land of the brave lord.” When the Borinqueneers were sent to the front lines in Korea, the men of the 65th performed exceptionally, earning praise from General MacArthur.

The 65th Infantry Regiment were awarded with a United States Congressional Gold Medal in June 2014, 60 years later, after a passionate two-years of activism by a nationwide alliance of volunteers, organizations and lawmakers in Congress. Puerto Ricans inhabit an exacting place in U.S. history because of the island’s commonwealth status: they don’t have the right to vote in U.S. elections, but serve in the military and can be drafted (Puerto Ricans can vote if they live in the United States).

The Windtalkers

Despite gaining the rights to citizenship and voting in 1924 from the federal government, Native Americans in some states could not vote until 1962, in spite of the esteemed contributions made by the Navajo during World War II.

Following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan dominated in the Pacific. Many Japanese soldiers were fluent in English and regularly decoded military messages. The U.S. needed an unbreakable code. In February of 1942, Philip Johnston, an engineer and veteran of World War I, had an idea: What if the military forces were to use the Navajo language as a secret code? Johnston was familiar with the language because he was the son of missionaries who spent a good portion of his life interacting with the Navajo people, and was one of a few non-Navajos who could speak the complicated language.

The Navajo code talker (Windtalkers) program was classified and remained a national secret until 1968. An estimated 375 to 420 Navajos served as Windtalkers. Returning home with no fanfare and sworn to secrecy, the Navajo Windtalkers are finally being acknowledged in mainstream American history. The “Honoring the Code Talkers Act,” introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico in April 2000, and signed into law December 21, 2000, called for the recognition of the Navajo code talkers. During a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on July 26, 2001, the first 29 soldiers received the Congressional Gold Medal.

The Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee airmen were the first African American servicemen to operate as military aviators in the U.S. armed forces, flying with distinction during World War II. Even though they were subject to racism in the U.S. and abroad, the 996 pilots and more than 15,000 ground personnel who served with the all-Black units would be credited with some 15,500 combat maneuvers and earn over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses for their achievements. The publicized successes of the Tuskegee Airmen helped pave the way for the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces under President Harry Truman in 1948.

After the war, the G.I. Bill was designed to help veterans adjust to civilian life by providing them with benefits that included low-cost mortgages and low-interest loans. African Americans did not benefit from the G.I. Bill anywhere near as much as White Americans. Historian Ira Katznelson notes that “the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow.” Of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were granted to people of color.

One of the great honors of my life was meeting Dr. Roscoe Brown, former Tuskegee Airman and former president of Bronx Community College, where I have worked for the last fourteen years. He was the squadron commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group and flew 68 missions and would eventually be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Dr. Brown often noted that the Airmen’s activism after the war was as important as their wartime service—having risked their lives abroad, the Airmen were determined to make the U.S. a more equitable place. Unfortunately, not only are we still working on that, we seem to be taking large strides backward.

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A Xenophobic Troglodyte Hates Fútbol

I normally wouldn’t devote much thought, let alone an entire blog entry, to a xenophobic troglodyte like Ann Coulter, but was inspired after watching the World Cup yesterday. This is a response to her shoddily written article about Fútbol (soccer) that created quite a stir on social media last week.

Before I address Coulter’s article, I would like to infuse some media literacy and survey her mindset.

Coulter knows her audience (market). She operates much like Fox “News”, appealing to a certain narrow-minded and largely intolerant demographic. Interestingly, most Fox “News” viewers do not realize (or simply ignore) that the same company broadcasting television series like Glee also owns Fox “News” (not exactly congruent as both appeal to difference audiences). Then there is the foreign ownership: Rupert Murdock is not American and the second-largest holder of voting stock in the company is Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (yes, a brown skinned Arab owns stock in Fox “News”). Some may say that MSNBC is the Progressive equivalent, but there are noticeable differences. First of all, MSNBC has at least one conservative voice (Joe Scarborough). Second, whenever you watch an MSNBC program, they provide substantiation: watch a segment of Rachel Maddow and she isn’t merely speaking, she provides sources (often using visuals). Coulter and Fox “News” just tell their audience what they want to hear; they are essentially pushing a product. This mindset creates an assortment of perils, the most notable being the loss of apt discourse. What we have now are Conservatives who immediately reject any idea (like climate change) that bears any semblance to something progressive or scientific (often referred to as ‘elite’) regardless of how sound or how much evidence has been provided.

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As I was watching Brazil play against Chile, in between the infinite cycle of big company logos being flashed on the field monitors, I took notice of a message that conveyed #stopracism. Coulter came to mind because I remember reading one headline regarding how she grumbled about the game being foreign. Out of morbid curiosity I read her article.

Scattered like a shipwreck on a beach, the article manages to take bizarre pot shots at the metric system, soccer moms, girl soccer players and Michael Jackson. Here are several points I have extracted from the wreckage.

  • “You can’t use your hands in soccer. (Thus eliminating the danger of having to catch a fly ball.) What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs. Our hands can hold things. Here’s a great idea: Let’s create a game where you’re not allowed to use them!”
    Not using your hands in sports takes great coordination and brainpower. You have to move and kick the ball while maintaining balance and strategizing where on the field you are going to kick it.

What is so wrong with Americans liking Fútbol (soccer)?

Could it be that some Americans watching the 2014 World Cup may want to start exploring how Brazil became energy independent (https://law.wustl.edu/WUGSLR/Issues/Volume7_2/Potter.pdf )? I have seen solar companies advertised on those field monitors (http://www.fifa.com/aboutfifa/socialresponsibility/environmental.html ).

Is it because too many brown people are playing?

Is it because it can inspire thoughts of understanding and tolerance?

Or is it because FIFA stands against discrimination and makes it known:

Discrimination of any kind against a Country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion. (http://www.fifa.com/aboutfifa/socialresponsibility/antiracism/index.html )

no to racism

Interestingly, if you watch the games on Spanish-language television, many of sponsors convey the above sentiments (not so on American television).

In a country like the United States, where you have a handful of small minded puritanical holy rollers picking narrow-minded textbooks for children (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jun/21/how-texas-inflicts-bad-textbooks-on-us/ ), the last thing Americans need is to have an even lesser understanding of the world. I am truly embarrassed whenever I read anything discussing America’s lack of knowledge regarding geography and basic social studies.

Coulter notes American Football’s ratings as if she had been hired by the NFL (http://www.npr.org/2014/01/18/263767372/the-nfl-big-business-with-big-tax-breaks) to stomp out any potential competition. Is it so hard for both sports to co-exist? In Coulter’s narrow view it is. She seems to have little sense that there’s an enormous, complex world beyond our borders.  She seems to think that the universe consists of the United States and then everyone else—and that everyone else should be stomped on.

“If more “Americans” are watching soccer today, it’s only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.”

I am pretty sure that Coulter’s readers do not know that American Football came from the European sport called Rugby (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/550852/football )? And Rugby has roots in similar ancient games found in Ancient Greece and China (http://www.fifa.com/classicfootball/history/the-game/origins.html ).

Like most things in modern America, it started somewhere else. Coulter, suffocate with that thought the next time you order French fries or a slice of pizza.

Ann Coulter, Circa 1980

Ann Coulter, circa 1980. Years before she got that boozy, party girl look that she has been sporting since the 1990’s and is too old to pull off in 2014.