Justin Simien’s Netflix show “Dear White People” opens with one of my favorite James Baldwin quotes: “The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which [they are] being educated." Why did that line strike me so hard? It boiled down my two year long fight for curriculum reform into one simple sentence.
Everything had been bubbling subconsciously for a while, but it was when I was a sophomore in high school, right in that sweet spot where the basics are covered and curriculum starts to become more moldable, when I started looking at my lessons more critically. I was an avid feminist, but everything that had shaped me was from outside research. Education came through in the form of tumblr blogs and friends of friends; classrooms were for reciting algebra formulas and declining Latin verbs. When we started working on Issue 5, I met with Katie Alice Greer of feminist punk band Priests. In passing, she mentioned she had taken a year off of her normal media consumption to solely focus on the stories of women in every field. The challenge inspired me, and once I started it myself, I realized just how much our classrooms were failing us. Moments started flashing before my eyes. How were multiple teachers allowed to call women “sluts” in ‘liberal’, academic spaces? Why did we only discuss heterosexual sex? Why were we glossing over black history, even in the specially designated month? (Why did we only have a month for black history?)
My friends and I joined the considerable movement to reform our classrooms and provide necessary supplements. We’ve done the research, and we’re ready to bring it to you every week. We know forgotten history. We know books that won’t make you want to bash your head into a wall. And we know the Western Canon is just an itty bitty teeny bit Bullshit. Without further ado, we bring you the first week of Curriculum Reform: the Essentials edition*.
*essentials, AKA, the five biggest pieces that influenced little old me. Don’t take the term too seriously.
For your ANGER: Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah by Bikini Kill
I feel like being angry is a side effect of being conscious: when I started to listen to punk music, it validated a side of me that had always existed. I had started moshing around at concerts when I was thirteen or so and I expressed the same sentiments that every young punk before me did and every punk after me probably will too -- I wanted to rebel, I wanted to listen to music, and I wanted to let go of rage, and that's why I gravitated to the spaces I did. Punk and post-punk posters started filling my room (I had a particular obsession with Steve Jones, Johnny Rotten, The Undertones, and Ian Curtis). The only problem was every band that I listened to was helmed by men. I wanted anger rooted not only at The System, but at the patriarchy. And that's when I found Bikini Kill.
Like most revolutionary groups, Bikini Kill was formed in reactionary measures. Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer, was a slam poet who was recruited by feminist activists Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail to merge feminism and punk. They catalyzed the Riot Grrrl movement with their honest, vitriolic, and determined lyrics. My favorite lines in this album include "I'm so sorry if I'm alienating some of you. Your whole fucking culture alienates me" (White Boy), and "Don't need you to say we're cute Don't need you to say we're alright Don't need your atti-fucking-tude, boy Don't need your kiss goodnight We don't need you, we don't need you Us girls don't need you" (Don't Need You). Girls to the Front forever!
It's important to note that the Riot Grrrl movement, despite songs like White Boy, was upsettingly white-centric. WOC are so often policed even further for their anger, but some feminist punks of color to help fuel and channel your range include Princess Nokia, Skinny Girl Diet, and Poly Styrene from Xray Spex.
For your CATALYST: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
So you want to be a radical*. You've felt the anger surge through you but maybe punk isn't your scene. Part of being a teen activist is figuring out what methods you want to us, and you can be fed up at the world around you without screaming into a microphone. Julia Alvarez's 1994 historical fiction novel, In The Time Of The Butterflies, imagines a narrative crafted by the four Mirabal sisters who sparked a resistance in the Dominican Republic (it's a true story that was erased from most history classes). Alvarez is a master at exploring these different narratives and explains what motivated Patria, Minerva, and Mate to work underground -- and Dede to stay behind. We're not fighting the secret police with guns as the Sisters in the 60s did, but learning the ideals behind four very different revolutionary figures can help you evaluate your own values. The book is available on Thriftbooks for around $4 and can be shipped anywhere in the world. But if you're antsy to get it quickly, you can get it on Amazon/in your local bookstore for full price, or just your local library.
*The newest cheesy late-night game show?
For MEMORIZATION: "Dear White People" dir. Justin Simien
You know those moments in class where you decide to speak out against a lesson? Your heart is racing but you raise your hand regardless... and when you say something, you're met with blank stares or straight up anger. It happens often -- once, I said reverse racism wasn't real in one of my classes and everyone erupted. The reaction was immediate and terrifying and upsetting, and I got so flustered that it was difficult to articulate such a simple statement (it eventually worked out, btw, but that's another article).
That's one of the reasons why it's important to ground your beliefs and become comfortable with their intricacies. When the inevitable naysayers rise up to contradict you, you'll be able to fire off a concise, take-no-bullshit, easy to understand explanation. Justin Simien is your guide in these moments. He wrote an acclaimed book called Dear White People, then adapted it into an acclaimed movie, then adapted it into one of the best Netflix series I've ever seen. DWP is hilarious and abrilliantly cinematic. It also tackles intersectional issues (colorism, police brutality, interracial relationships, internalized homophobia, nepotism, classism, sexism, to name a few) effectively, wonderfully, and succinctly. The episode directed by Barry Jenkins is one of the most heart-wrenching realistic twenty six minutes on television. No matter how educated you are, it's a necessary watch.
For YOUR REFLECTION: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Let's talk about microaggressions, the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In simple terms, those little comments that aren't formed as insults, but sink just as deep. "You're pretty for a...";"but where are you really from?";"Not to be [...], but....";. Chances are, you know these comments well. And so do most other people. One person who is more than familiar, in fact, is the iconic Claudia Rankine, because Citizen is dedicated to exploring and deconstructing them. Her collection of poems, mixed media pieces, and lyric essays are a documentary and a testament to the realities in a so-called "post-race" world.
For YOUR Entertainment: SLUTEVER by Karley Scioritino
In my eyes, curriculum reform must be centered around the idea of Unlearning, which is why Karley Sciortino's series dedicated to busting myths on fetishes, kinks, and (our very narrow idea of) sexuality is one of my favorites. The show highlights subjects that are often relegated to dirty XXX books and magazines. Something so exciting about SLUTEVER is it’s visual — which helps you figure out what you like, and what you don’t. Plus, though revolutionary work certainly doesn’t hinge on aesthetic appeal, the Now-Signature Documentary Style Vice has established is very present, which boosts the overall captivating element. Karley navigates a world that has existed for eons but consistently in shame, and proves our ultra-secret fantasies are more common than you think. As SESTA/FOSTA usher in a new reign of sex-negativity in our government, SLUTEVER is a completely beneficial show to educate yourself. And if it bolsters your own experimentation, so be it ;-).
Illustrations by Fred Sahai.