Monday, September 30, 2013

The Times of Harvey Milk: Uncovering Lost Histories

My English classes are currently writing essays about local politics.  To demonstrate the importance of local, city government, I am showing the documentary film, "The Times of Harvey Milk."  It won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1984 and is the only feature length documentary I'm aware of about the life of America's first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, who was a San Francisco City Supervisor until his assassination in 1978.

I'm more than a little bummed that I never learned about Harvey Milk in school.  It wasn't until I watched the 2008 drama "Milk" that I learned about this historic figure.  The older I get, the more things I learn about that I wish I'd learned in school--basic, foundational things like Mexican-American, gay, and Native American civil rights struggles.  I feel that if I'd learned aboout people like Harvey Milk and Dolores Huerta and Corky Gonzalez and the Mendez family, I wouldn't have been so closed-minded about gay people or Mexican immigrants growing up.

Which begs the question: Why?  Why don't we learn gay history in public schools?  Why don't we learn Mexican-American civil rights history?  I suspect it has something to do with school boards and elected officials who have historically run successful fear-based campaigns that were anti-gay and anti-immigrant.  People like John Briggs and Bob Dornan and William Dannemeyer ran on vocally anti-minority platforms, and it makes sense that they would't want people learning the real history of minorities, because learning brings the opposite of fear and hate.  Learning brings understanding and compassion.

But the reality is that I did grow up in Orange County and there are huge gaps and distortions in what I learned.  Perhaps it is because of this that I am so passionate about uncovering and learning lost or suppresseed histories.  As the saying goes, "Those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it."  I don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past.  I want to learn and write and share, and try to inspire my students to do the same.

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