Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Great American Dust Bowl

 “…history is that old woman
    Sitting in a doorstep
    eating lemons”  
                      Le Roi Jones
  I don’t know exactly when I fell in love with history, but it has been a major interest of mine for decades. I do remember memorizing the Presidents AND Vice-Presidents of the United States in order in third grade and knowing the start and end dates of a ton of wars. I was a reader and super-curious; I asked a lot of, “How “and “Why” questions that drove my parents and teachers crazy.  So it seems inevitable that I would love and later teach US and World History.

 By junior high I was beyond the dates and famous people. I was looking for connections and cause and effect that linked events. I was growing in the depth of my questions and of my reading,  And then, somewhere in high school, what history meant really hit me: HIS- STORY. STORY! That was what made it all come together for me. I became interested in the interactions between people and history. Yes, big events and theories were important. Major players on the historical arena mattered. But what really drew me in were the stories. How did big events affect common people? How did common people affect events? What did it mean to be a ‘worker” at a certain time and in a certain place? What was it like to be a 12-year-old girl in a certain part of the world at a certain time? What do farmers really do?? I needed to know those stories and more.

I say all of this because I am thoroughly engrossed in a wonderfully written and moving book called, The Worst Hard Time; The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Written by journalist Timothy Egan, it is an in-depth look at the people who stayed in the Great Plains even as nature seemed to turn on the human species. I knew a little about the Dust Bowl and I knew some things about the Great Depression: I have read several historical books and historical novels about that time period.  Many of us who were “folkies” in the 60’s are familiar with the songs and stories about the traveling hoboes of the Depression: Woody Guthrie wrote many great songs about “Okies” and families always on the road and desperately looking for a place to work and to settle. Many of us are also familiar with the book and the film, The Grapes of Wrath. All of those were largely about people who left the Dust Bowl and wandered. Egan’s work, though, is about those who stayed behind. The ones who tried to live through the Dust Bowl. I always meant to see Ken Burns’ film, “The Dust Bowl,” but I never got around to it. I do know now that I will see it as soon as I finish this book.

 The power and beauty of this book for me is that it looks at more than just the historical events and science of what led to the dust storms that devastated an area larger than the state of Pennsylvania: an area that stretched from half of Kansas to parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and 1/3 of Texas. Egan tells the stories of the people in that area at that time. People who stayed throughout the storms and what their lives were like. He gives detailed looks at individual people of different ages and backgrounds and what it was like to live in a sod house or an underground dugout. Or what it was like to shake someone’s hand and be knocked down by the static electricity contained within the dust. What it meant to plant a crop of wheat and have no rain for two years. How some families had to rotate the days of the week on which each of their children could eat in an attempt to make their meager food supplies last. How towns had to deal with invasions of hundreds of rabbits, grasshoppers, tarantulas and black widow spiders. What it was like to take a breath and have your throat fill with tiny particles of dust.  And what it was like when the dust repeatedly flew so heavily that it blotted out the sun.

 The Plains had a surprising mix of people, and Egan also gives us backstories of the different people there and how they got to the Plains. Why so many German-Russians came from the Volga River area across thousands of miles to settle. How Jews wound up in the Oklahoma panhandle. How the Homestead Acts of the mid 1800’s led  to a flood of people of all types-Welsh, Irish, African-American and more, trying to find work or make a claim and get rich planting wheat during a “wheat boom” that suddenly went bust. And what about the Naive Americans who had settled it first? Egan ties all of this together in a way that is involving and compelling. He transports us there, and we don’t just read about it. We feel it through and through. He takes a part of our history that most would rather forget and brings it back to life. The book has plenty to teach us, especially in light of our now near desperate climate crisis. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from it in time to help us reverse our own environmental disaster.
(Here is a link to  Ken Burns’ PBS film, The Dust Bowl. Timothy Egan was a consultant:

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Toni and Ernest: Two Who Mattered

Remembering Two Who Mattered So Much
One of the things people do just after the start of a new year is look back at the year just passed and the events that had an impact on us as a nation,  members of a group or groups, and as individuals. It is a necessary attempt, I believe, to “sum up;" to do that human thing of trying to make sense of whatever has  happened: and make it make “sense.” We acknowledge certain things as ‘important’ or “vital,” and construct some sort of narrative. We need to put things in some sort of order and try to find meaning from doing that. This is one of the things that makes us human.
For me, this act often reminds me of the effects certain people  have had on my life- how what they said, sang, wrote, played and/or stood for spoke to me and influenced me. I know Americans like to think of themselves as self-motivated and self-made, but I know that so much of who I am, how I think, and what I do I owe to others.  People who encouraged me, guided me, provided an inspiration, gave me a new idea or new way of looking at things, and helped me see things in a different or clearer way. In 2019 I had the opportunity to think back on two particular people who played such roles in my life: the writers Ernest J. Gaines and Toni Morrison.  I never got to meet them, and I heard them read live only one time each. But the impact they both had and have on my thinking, reading, looking at the world, and sense of what it means and meant to be an African-American in this country and in this time is immeasurable.

  I came upon these writers in my early and mid-20’s-a time that is often the time of a quest for identity, self-knowledge, and exploration for so many of us.  And it was a time-the 60’s into the late 70’s- when openly questioning narratives we were handed was supported by much of the culture. As I mentioned in my November 13th newsletter, written shortly after Gaines had died, I stumbled onto him via John Oliver’s great book, Interviews with Black Writers. I had not yet read him or many other Black Writers whose lives and works were not rooted in the urban arena with which I was familiar. But Gaines’ love of language and his upbringing, his sense of place, and his connection to Russian writers and to Faulkner drew me in. He was intriguing. And his themes and insights, as I started to read him, were startling in their power and importance.  Stated and implied, his characters represented and illustrated different ideas about color, history, family, manhood and more, and they gave me tons of things to mull over for the next half century of my life. I began to understand and appreciate more fully my family’s Southern background and the way that past formed such a large and powerful part of this country’s history and culture. And as I was interacting with, meeting and learning from so many Southern bluesmen at that time, it was serendipitous.

   Likewise, I came to Toni Morrison’s writing indirectly. She edited, The Black Book, that marvelous wide-ranging scrapbook of Black life both here and worldwide. That book exposed me to a lot of little-known tidbits of history, both big picture and small, and gave me tons of things to research and think about. I was also impressed that a major publishing company put all of the money and resources into a book about African-American life and had African-Americans write and edit it. And one of those editors, Toni Morrison, had a job as a full-time editor at this publishing company! This was 1974, after all, and it was a major development at that time. So when I saw a novel written by this same Toni Morrison, I just had to read it. Sula, her second novel, immediately grabbed me with its description of the thoughts and life of this sad but amazing and often infuriating woman who, because she had no art, became quite dangerous. Compelling, dramatically phrased, full of feeling and insight, Ms. Morrison’s prose cut into me like a Sonny Boy Williamson harp riff; intense, deep, and lovingly bringing me almost to the point of tears. Her way of depicting life in a small-town Ohio miles removed from my urban Philadelphia also widened my understanding of a whole other aspect of Black life and experience. Like Gaines’ Louisiana, this was literally new landscape for me, and it helped my appreciation and understanding of another segment of Black life and American life; my world was getting larger. So I joyously read more, including Song of Solomon, to me her greatest work. With its mix of magic, poetry, religion, identity, use of names, family relations, and pictures of different struggles to make meaning of life in this world, this is one of the most beautifully written and wonderfully complex books I have ever read. Thinking of some quotes and situations in that book still moves me today.

   But the beauty and power of the writings of these two authors is so much more than just the socio-political. Their prose is magical, capable of conveying moments of wonder, insight, thoughtfulness, and beauty at the same time  it is bringing their characters or a situation into focus. They are first and foremost WRITERS: people who create quiet miracles with the English language in ways that stick with a person and have him re-reading certain passages again and again:

   “There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind — wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.” 
                                                         Toni Morrison-Beloved
It came from a piece of old wood that he found in the yard somewhere. That's what we all are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we--each one of us, individually--decide to become something else.,,”
                                                          Ernest J. Gaines-A Lesson Before Dying

  I am fortunate to have had the works of these two authorial “guiding lights” in my life. It is fitting, I think, that they both died in the same year and within months of each other. For they each came into my life in rapid succession and gave me much to drink in and enjoy, learn from, marvel at, and they both deepened my sense of myself, the world and the places where they interact. Thank you, Brave Authors. Thank you for the pleasure, surprise, beauty and knowledge  your words gave me. 

 (Here are links to my newsletters after the deaths of each of these authors)
Ernest Gaines