The Dilemma

Terrible Dilemma

In May 1942, a young Japanese America woman, Mary Tsukamoto, was faced with a terrible moral dilemma. Should she help her desperate people in the short run when that meant cooperating with the government when the government was going to commit a crime? Should she fight the government and in the process hurt the people she loved the most? Mary made her agonized decision when she had no idea of the long-term consequences.

 The Train

Finally, on May 29, 1942, at the beginning of the U.S.’s entry into WWII, a train chugged through the night into the desert. The people Mary had tried to help were crammed into it. As it swayed back and forth, a mother cradled her feverish child in the women’s restroom where the small girl had been quarantined. The two-year-old’s face was red with measles. Outside the bathroom, a young woman’s back arched and groaned in labor. At the other end of the car, an elderly woman sobbed, holding onto the hand of her dying husband. Mary Tsukamoto’s five-year-old daughter jammed her face into her mother’s chest and cried.

The train full of people of Japanese heritage passed through the wastelands, beginning it’s trip to Jerome, Arkansas, where the families would be imprisoned for the remainder of World War II.

 Subsistence Grape and Strawberry Farmers

Decades later, Mary Tsukamoto, leaned stiffly forward, tears rolling down her face, as she told me the story of the imprisonment of 1100 innocent Japanese heritage people. She was a small woman of sixty-six when I interviewed her in 1982. At the beginning of the war, her community of Florin, California was flourishing, despite being made up of poor grape and strawberry subsistence farmers.

But government officials panicked that people of Japanese heritage might spy for Japan, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order committing Japanese background people, children as well as adults, to detention camps for the remainder of the war. This was despite the fact that no Japanese American ever committed an act of sabotage or spying.

Signs on Telephone Poles

Mary was a leader in the community as a young woman, and after signs went up on telephone poles informing people that they were about to be evacuated, the government asked Mary to help the people prepare to leave their homes. Mary was torn by the cruel request, but she had transportation and eventually tore around, helping the desperate people get to doctors and dentists, lawyers and banks. It was hopeless to fight the government during a war, she reasoned, and by assisting with the preparations, she could keep suffering to a minimum.

We Left Our Berries to Rot!

“On the last day, strawberries were red in the fields, in the peak of the season we left our berries to rot!” She told me, crying hard. “And many farmers depended on that crop to pay back debts they had borrowed in the stores and shipping companies. And some families had only two hours to get ready. The military came running over and said, ‘You’ve got to go today.’ And families were out in the fields, picking berries at the time. Some families were in the middle of their lunch, eating. How terrible those families must have felt, leaving their dishes and running! Food half eaten. . . So it’s a real sordid story.”

The Ugliness Came Out

Mary told me, “And when we arrived in Jerome [after the train trip], all the ugliness came out. We were herded together in terrible heat, and tar was dripping in from our barracks. So many feelings were hurt and some of us blamed us, and people were running around trying to come and tell me that it was my fault that families were split up. That I had betrayed them by helping with the evacuation. We were tearing at each other. When you get frightened, you do that. The ugliest part of us came out, and we were surprised that we were doing that to each other. We had been friends.”

Old Before They Should Have Been

Eventually, the families settled into the barracks and tried to survive. “But,” Mary continued, “the evacuation destroyed so many. Many people were broken; they never were the same. They just mentally lost their minds, and some committed suicide and some never came back. Many of them got sick when they were young. They were old before they should have been.”

Blood on her Hands

When the war was nearly over, most evacuees were released and settled in different parts of the country. Whites had burned much of the Japanese community in Florin. People who came back lived in chicken coops, but Mary and her family settled back on their farm which had been saved by their loving white neighbor.

Mary tried to rebuild her life but was tormented by the accusations that she had cooperated with the government. Was that true? What should she have done as a leader in the community? Should she have led others in a decision to fight back? Was her neighbors’ blood on her hands? In the meantime, she resumed her life as a teacher, emphasizing to the young people that the evacuation and internment had been terribly wrong. “Never again,” she told them. “We must never let this happen to another people.”

Redress

Eventually, the Japanese American Citizens League pressured Congress into forming a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians; in 1981 the commission held a series of hearings concerning the wartime experience. One of the hearings took place on August 12, 1981, at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. About 450 people were in the audience, and speakers were each given five minutes to state their views on the evacuation, recall memories of it, and make requests for redress. Mary was among them.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an official apology that provided both compensation of $20,000 to each survivor of the camps and funds to promote Japanese American culture and history. By then, many of the survivors were dead.

Could It Happen Again?

In the last part of our interviews, Mary said, “I teach children and they need the truth, because if they don’t have that, they don’t have anything. Then there’s nothing to be proud of, really, being an America. It makes me upset when people say it could never have happened in America, that they never heard about it and so it didn’t happen.

This is why I’ve been telling my children at Jan Ken Po Gakka [the school she founded], ‘It did happen and you learn what happened and tell everybody what happened so it can never happen to anybody else again.’ That’s my terrible fear; that we won’t speak up; that we’ll get old and die, and it will happen to somebody else.”

 Contemporary Detention Centers

I never saw Mary again, although we kept in touch. I’ve thought of her repeatedly during the immigration crisis of 2019 when the Trump administration imprisoned asylum seeking immigrants, including children, in detention centers along the border between Mexico and the U.S. Many people protested against the government actions, calling the imprisonment of asylum seekers immoral and liking the detention centers to the internment camps in WWII.

No More! No More!

Former surviving Japan American inmates from one of the WWII detention centers, the Crystal City Department of Justice internment site, met and demonstrated with others at the present-day family detention center in Dilley, Texas. “No More” and “Never Again” their signs proclaimed.Satsuki Ina, who spearheaded the pilgrimage, stated that, “We’ve got to take these prisons down. They’re inhumane.”

Thus, Japanese Americans still struggled for justice; Mary’s call of “Never again,” was repeated; and it seemed like Mary’s spirit hovered over the demonstrations.

The Right Thing

Mary never knew if for sure if she had done the right thing during WWII, but she lived with her doubts and didn’t let them stop her. She continued to teach and organize throughout her life. Some young people hurled accusations of collaboration with the government at her and others who had helped with the evacuation. She felt these accusations deeply and struggled with them.

Certainly, her decision to prepare people for detention was the great moral dilemma of her life. But with full knowledge of her quandary, she struggled on. She didn’t let her doubts stop her from moral action later. As an old woman, I, too, have regrets and confusions about behaviors in my past, but they must not stop me. Despite my moral perplexities, I am called upon to act decisively in my final attempts to affect the world.

Posted in farm workers, Inequality, Injustice, internment camps, Japanese Americans, oral histories, Prisons, Racism, Social Justice, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Death of the Black Doll

The Black Doll

The sobbing African American girl hurled the black doll onto the ground and started to chop it with a hoe. The broken-hearted child, Mary Robinson, was born in 1943, the daughter of black sharecroppers. She grew up on a white-owned farm in the countryside north of Montgomery, Alabama.

Decades later, she stared into my eyes. and told me, “One Christmas, Shane [her sister] and me each got a doll, the only one we’d ever had. But when we looked at our dolls, Shane got a white doll and I got a black doll, and neither had no hair. I was little, probably six or seven, and I began to holler. I didn’t want no black doll. I wanted a white one like Joy’s [her white friend] or at least one like Shane’s.

“So Mama told me that there was only two left, ‘cause Santa Claus didn’t have but two. He had a black one and a white one, so he gave the black one to me.

Little Bitty, Hard Rubber

“I felt so bad, I beat that doll to death. It was a hard rubber doll, little bitty, with no hair, just lines on it. And I took that doll out there behind the smokehouse. We had a big stick, and I beat it and beat it and beat it ‘til I beat off all the legs, the arms off, the head off. And all the time I was beating it, I cried, “I don’t want you, you old black doll, you!’ I just cried and cried.

“The doll was hard, and it took quite a bit of beating to break it apart. Then I went and got me a hoe and I chopped it into pieces, and I buried every one of those pieces into a different hole. “For a long time didn’t nobody knowed what happened. Shane made her doll all kinds of clothes, and I thought her doll was much prettier than mine had been. Finally, one day she was playing with it, and Mama asked me, ‘Mary Jimmie?’

“‘Ma’am?’

“‘Where your doll at?’

“I told her and she said. ‘Well, I bet you one thing, young lady. I bet you ain’t never gonna get you another one!’

“And I never did. I beat that doll of mine ‘cause I just could not stand the idea that my sister had a white doll and I had a colored one.”

The Klan

Mary gazed at me after she told me her story about killing her doll. We had just met, and I’d turned on the tape recorder. I was stunned. I felt like my heart was broken that a little girl should feel such self hatred and fear. I just shook my head back and forth.

Mary and I have talked about that story frequently over our 40 years of friendship. She said that when she thought back at it, she was simply terrified of being African American. “I was plumb scared to death of the Klan.”

Psychological Tests

Mary’s granddaughter Sasha

I sat drinking Mary’s coffee and thought of psychological tests of African American children that were done before the 1954 Supreme Court order to integrate schools in the South. The results of those studies, done by Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark, were presented as evidence in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. In the experiments black children were given either white dolls with yellow hair or brown dolls with black hair and studied for their reactions. The children responded with enthusiasm and praise to the white dolls and forcefully discarded those that were black.

Stick Figures

I am white and my ex-husband and I had adopted one of our daughters. She was mixed race–African American and white. Shortly after her adoption, I sat in a doctor’s office and thumbed through a magazine. I turned a page and saw reproductions of children’s drawings. A series of self portraits of young black children displayed stick figures, often missing arms or legs, mouths, eyes, and hair. Another series, also drawn by the same black children, depicted white children. These images were drawn in full, complete with arms, legs, hands, hair, smiles, and eyes.

I sat motionless for a moment. Was this the internal reality my culture was going to teach my vibrant baby daughter? Perhaps my love for her would not be enough. My heart sank, and the moment stayed with me. Now Mary and I stared at each other, puzzling over a crime done to a little girl so long ago.

An Exuberant Functional Person

I would have found Mary’s story of killing her doll too heartbreaking to write about if Mary had not grown to be such an exuberant, functional person. Not only did she overcome her childhood fears and self-hatred, but she became a leader in the African American freedom movement – participating in the civil rights crusade, especially in voter registration. and then being recruited as a worker to integrate the all white textile plants.

While she was working in the J.P. Stevens textile mill in Montgomery, she was recruited again, this time by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, where she became a leader. She went on to take part in other political activities.

Center Woman

Now, old like me, she no longer participates directly in politics, but she is a “center woman” for her large extended family and multitude of friends, whose activism she encourages. I am inspired by Mary’s granddaughter Sasha Johnson, also a political activist who takes after her.

Child Labor

I try to analyze the process that took place in Mary’s home community and the larger society as they helped her develop positively from such a cruel, tragic, and exploitative beginning. The whole cotton production system that underlay much of the industrial development that has made categories of white Americans rich was based on child labor and the constant work of African Americans families. Living on white farms, entire black families toiled from sunup to sundown for barely subsistence wages. They were kept in place by hunger and violence.

Resilience

Certainly, Mary was an resilient child, but from what did her resiliency come? The violent social setting into which she was born was designed to break her, to devastate a poor, black girl’s heart in such a way. It depended on a population of workers who had been so hurt and hemmed in by violence they would not resist. But they did.

Give God Time

Beginning with the African diaspora, the enslaved millions fought back, often drawing on their African heritage. Mary learned those techniques from her black community and beloved parents. She also lived just north of Montgomery, and in 1955, Rosa Parks took her famous bus ride. Mary was fascinated with the early civil rights movement, skipped school in order to observe it, and began to participate as soon as she was older. Within years, she also came in contact with the labor union movement and drew upon it’s centuries of history.

She also drew on her own personal inheritance. She was intelligent, nosey, observant, and energetic. She had a profound religious faith in the tradition of the black church, and she had a vision of justice. When racial violence occurred, Mary’s mother reassured her that there would be a better world. “Give God time. Give God time,” she explained to her children.

She Lights the Path

Many people touched Mary’s life in a profound way. They are so important I will describe them in a subsequent blog. Mary also lights a path for those who come in contact with her. When I am tired and discouraged, I call Mary. Just her greeting lifts my spirits, and within minutes I am renewing my commitments. Watching the news and working her phone, the child who murdered the doll made in her image, now keeps circles of people inspired to work for a better world.

Posted in African American, Inequality, Injustice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

God Gave You a Big Mouth

Snake Running Loose

The first time I visited Irene Mack Pyawasit, a Menominee Native Woman living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was in the early evening of one of the first days of spring in 1979. I drove into the alley of the old, crowded, inner-city neighborhood where she lived. The alley was filled with black and brown children playing ball. Irene’s gray shingled cottage stood behind an battered two-story house from whose open windows came the shouts of children.

I parked the car and walked to Irene’s cottage door. Early stalks of tulips and crocuses lined the walk, and soft pussy willows bloomed across from the door. I knocked on the door, heard the bark of several dogs, and was greeted by the sign:

“Kev–
Open the door with ease,
I’ve let the snake run loose.
Gram”

Shrewd Sense of Humor

Irene was a Menominee woman in her late sixties who interviewed me three times before she agreed to let me interview her. She had light brown skin, a wide strong-chinned face, and gray and white hair pulled back in a bun and decorated with stick jewelry. Her face was intelligent and alert, and she had a mischievous smile and a deep, firm voice. Her total presence was of Irene P. Mackcompetency, strength, keen awareness, and a shrewd sense of humor.

Menominee Reservation

Irene’s understanding of history and tradition was deeply rooted in the Menominee reservation of her childhood. The reservation, located in Northern Wisconsin, is a watery labyrinth of lakes and forests where the loon calls, bears still roam, and there is an abundance of deer. Ferns grow tall and thick in the deep woods, and the earth is soft with pine needles and leaves.

Poverty

It is from these forests that the Menominee have derived their livelihood, but the people are poor. In Menominee County, 35.8% of the population live below the poverty level, while the national average is 13.1%.

Encouraged Education

At the time I interviewed Irene, a number of the Menominee remained on the reservation, living intimately with the land they so deeply loved. Many others moved from the reservation to Milwaukee and other urban centers in an attempt to improve their conditions.

Even there their hard lives continued. In order to change these hardships, Irene encouraged education in a variety of ways. Irene and her husband taught informally, and she worked at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, recruiting Native students.

Tough Little Old Woman

Schooling had been forced on Irene when she was a child by requiring her to attend notoriously bad and cruel government and mission boarding schools. But before that, she was raised by her beloved grandmother. Irene told me, “My grandmother was a tough, little old woman, but a good one.

God Gave You a Big Mouth

She taught me a lot of things, and the first thing she taught me was not to be afraid of the white man. She said, ‘God gave you big mouth, and I’m going to teach you how to use it.’” Nevertheless, Irene was swept away from her grandmother and shipped far away to schools whose main purpose was to break the Indianness from the children, “To kill the Indian and save the man.”

Keep Religion in her Heart

Irene’s grandmother taught Irene that the schools would try to destroy her, but they would not succeed. Irene was strong, her grandmother told her, and she would keep her religion in her heart.

Still, staff in the schools used violence; deprivation of food; cold; sexual assault; separation from families; and forced assimilation of dress, behavior, language, hair styles; and religious practices to try to break native children. The government designed institutions to kill the culture, destroy the spirit, and break the resilience in the child.

Some Did Not Survive

Some children did not survive the treatment. According to the Meriam Report [a 1928 government investigation ] “. . . Indian children were six times as likely to die in childhood while at boarding schools than the rest of the children in America.”

Little children were made to follow strict regimes and stripped of signs of the indigenous identity. Young women were trained to do low paid labor, especially as poor servants in white homes, and/or to raise their own children to be diligent laborers in the working class. Likewise, young men were trained to be subservient and non-resisting workers in farms, factories, the military, or other industrial jobs.

Bitterness in her Voice

Irene spoke, the bitterness still in her voice, “After our classes were over in the morning, we had to go to our various duties. Some of us worked in the field picking grapes, sugar beets; some of us were assigned to the dairy barns; some of us were assigned to the homes of the government employees.

“And that’s where they thought they were going to have a lot of fun with us because we were a bunch of dumb Indians girls. I was twelve but I taught one of the men a lesson that I’m sure if he’s still alive, he’s never forgotten. His wife wasn’t in the house at the time, and he came in from the dairy barn and thought he was going to have some fun with me.

“He tried to push me into a corner between the door and the refrigerator, but I gave him a good example of what a knee was built for. I had him walking like a camel.

“They took his word against mine and figured I was disobedient and unruly. Of course, I was punished, but I never went back to that house to do any more work.

Punishment

“For punishment, I had scrubbing duty on my hands and knees, and I had what seemed like miles to do. I had stairways, hallways, and dormitory floors. I had no privileges to go downtown, no recreation privileges at any time. I had to scrub and scrub and clean and clean and clean and clean. I had about three or four months of just scrubbing duty to do, but still I got him away from me.”

Resistance

Irene resisted throughout her life. She worked for a circus throughout the depression, teaching children and adults between shows. She became involved in tribal politics and was the first woman in her tribe to ever represent it in Washington as an official delegate. She was a registered lobbyist for the federal House and the Senate.

She and her present husband traveled, giving religious leadership in the Big Drum. She has taught her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren their religious beliefs. She wrote and made recordings of stories and legends, preserving them for upcoming generations and served as a mentor to young political leaders. Her future hopes included teaching Native history.

I lost contact with Irene before she died, but I continued to study Indian resistance, which has developed and continued in a multitude of ways.

Additional Ressistance

Adults and children resisted the boarding schools throughout their years of existence from the late 19th century through the 1970s. Parents camped outside of the schools so they could see their children; children ran away. Eventually, children from the schools got to know each other outside of tribal identification and formed the Pan Indian Movement of the past decades. These students took a largely negative experience and turned it into a cultural and political crusade that has done much to increase the life prospects of indigenous people today.

House Made of Dawn

Speaking of resistance such as the lifetime of struggle described by Irene Mack Pyawasit, N. Scott Momaday, writing in House Made of Dawn, stated, “They have assumed the names and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls, and in this there is resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting.”

Posted in Menominee, Native American, Native boarding schools, Poverty, Racism, religion, Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vision-Filled Eyes

Holy Mission

I remember a specific morning. Lilly’s face glistened as she told me, “I got baptized in the creek when I was fourteen. God came down in a cloud and said, ‘Lilly, visit the sick and the afflicted. It’s your holy mission.’” Six decades later, Lilly was losing her memory but had not forgotten her charge. Lilly Baker, a tiny and slightly stooped, seventy-six-year-old, had an oval face, dark brown eyes, fair skin, and heavy black and white eyebrows. I stayed with her when I interviewed other women in Appalachia in 1980.

Black Lung

Lilly came from a Eastern Kentucky coal working family of thirteen and only went through the fourth grade, but as a child, she helped her mother care for others. At fifteen, she began working with a mountain nurse, and from then on, she walked throughout the mountains and hollows where people lived. She stayed with and nursed the sick, cared for their families, and comforted their kin, serving as a midwife when necessary.
She married a coal miner and gave birth three times and cradled her “blue baby” with a heart defect in her arms until the baby died. She also cared for her husband throughout his life and death from black lung. Now her memory was going, and her surviving daughters, living in Indianapolis, were glad to have me stay with her for the week I was there.

The Visit

One morning, when I was not busy, she told me she would take me to one of the afflicted. She carried a small bag of food, and we climbed up the hollow. We smelled the house before we reached it, a terrible stench of human waste and illness. The green, eight foot square house stood on titled brick stilts. Rotten debris was piled under the base, and a thin, limping gray kitten crawled among some trash.

Confused and Wary

The elderly woman Lilly took me to see leaned against the decaying doorway, holding herself against the frame with her hands. She looked like she was starving. Her skin was almost as white as her hair, and large, orange-brown freckles lay across her nose and under her eyes. She smiled at us, but her eyes looked confused and wary. A wide-eyed skinny blond boy of about nine watched us just outside the door. Lilly looked at the boy, “It’s OK. We’ve brought food and have just come visiting.”

Company Boy

The woman in the doorway still seemed confused to have us there, so we stood outside her house talking with the boy. He spoke brokenly about a road being built up their hollow, grabbed the kitten, which tried to crawl under the house, then held the animal awkwardly by one leg and smiled and lifted it up to us. As he did it, the emaciated woman muttered, “You got to watch the kid. He’s a little off. He don’t get things straight. Hard on cats.” She then turned slowly toward him and continued, “It’s good to have him though. He’s my company boy.

Empty Can of Peaches                           

It seemed as if speaking made her more at ease, and she sank away from the door, holding onto a walker, and eased down into a hard chair in the corner of her shelter. We took it as an invitation and stepped up and inside the door. I looked around and saw the old chair she was sitting on, a single bed with soiled blankets, a small wood heater, and a table with an empty can of peaches. There was no toilet inside the house, and a pan of dirty water sat against the wall. Lilly put her food on the table. “There’s enough for the boy too.” She turned to me.
Suddenly the other woman spoke. “My Lewis was a corn popper. We popped corn for carnivals. He’s gone now, I’m all alone, except for the boy.” Then she sat silently, smiling at us and nodding to our questions as she and the boy ate.

Smell of Honeysuckle

Eventually Lilly said, “We’ll say goodbye now. I’ll bring food again soon.” We left the old woman sitting quietly in the corner of the room, but the boy waved at us from the doorway. As we walked away from the door, the smell of honeysuckle replaced the scent of decay. I contacted a nun in public health and told her about the starving woman and child. She assured me that they would try to get them services. I could not do much because I was leaving town the next day, but I left some money with Lilly for food. It was before the internet, and I did not have a method to keep in close touch with the nurse. If public health did get food and care to the woman and child it would be because Lilly, even when losing her memory, acted out the basic values of her life.

Government Programs

Several government programs have been designed to help the vulnerable, such as Mrs. Lewis and the child. SNAP (food stamps), Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and what was called Aid to Dependent Children and is now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families all have problems and are given begrudgingly, but, theoretically, they could have helped Mrs. Lewis and the boy.

Inequality

I’ve thought of Lilly over the 40 years since our time together. Undoubtedly, the dynamics of her community are different. I certainly hope a woman and boy would not nearly starve so close to town. But inequality in the U.S. is even worse since that time. The top 1% share of market income rose from 9.6% in 1979 to 17.5% by 2016. In the meantime, in 2016 poverty rates in nine Eastern Kentucky counties were among the 30 highest in the nation, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Partly this is based on the sharp downturn in the coal industry, which has wiped out more than 2/3 of the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky in 2011. While it was profitable for Northeastern owners to extract Appalachian resources, it did so. Then times, profits, and policies changed, and the families and communities that had given coal their lives were left in poverty. Partly in consequence, Lilly’s community was been hit hard by the opiod epidemic.

The Calling

All these decades later, I still hear Lilly’s voice and see her shining, vision-filled eyes. I am older now than she was then. I never was close before to someone who spoke quite like Lilly when she talked about her “holy mission to visit the sick and the afflicted.” But I too have felt I have a calling. Mine was to tell the stories of the women like Lilly and the Mrs. Lewis.
A year ago I had emergency surgery, nearly died, then fought for my life for 28 days. During my time in the ICU, I kept murmuring to my doctors, “You’ve got to save my life. I’m just two weeks from finishing the book I’m writing.” I too had my mission. In a way, it was like Lily was with me. It was months before I was well enough to finish my book, but, like Lily, I was dedicated to my calling, and it gave me stamina and energy. I think that during times as hard as these are now, we need to remember our basic purpose. Until we got overwhelmed, what was it we needed to do? What will give us the strength to go on?

Roles to Play

When I came back to visit a year after my time with Lilly, Mrs. Lewis’ house was gone, and Lilly had left to live with her daughters in Indiana. I still feel guilty about not doing more for Mrs. Lewis, but she and I had different roles to play in our culture’s hierarchy. At that time, one of mine was to go back to my children. I hope Lilly had a good life in Indianapolis, and I fervently hope someone helped Mrs. Lewis and the boy.

Posted in Appalachia, Health care, hunger, Inequality, Injustice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ten-Gallon Crock

Electric Chair

Helen D., an old woman with the booming voice, clasped her hands under her heavy breasts. “Geez, I was just a girl. I had four babies of my own at home, a sick husband, and all my brothers and sisters to take care of.

A girlfriend of mine drove me down to Duluth. An old woman met me there and put me in a taxicab, and we rode out to the middle of a woods. She put a blindfold on me so I couldn’t see where I was going. Gee whiz, it was just like going to the electric chair.”

Tucked in her Bra

Decades later, Helen and I sat together at her kitchen table in Hibbings, Minnesota where she told me her story. As Helen spoke she wiped tears out of her eyes with a handkerchief she kept tucked in her bra.

Skinny Piece of Wood

“Finally, we came to an old house and the old woman took me out. The lady that went there with me had to stay in the cab. The old woman was there alone in the house, and she said, ‘You got the $300?’

“‘Yes.’

“‘Lay on this.’

She had a ironing board on the bed. So I laid on the ironing board, and the old woman put a long, skinny, smooth piece of wood all the way up my vagina. I had no pain; I must be made of wood. . . But I was terrified. I didn’t abort right away, then after a week I hemorrhaged.”

Cookie Jar

As Helen and I talked, and she told me the story of her illegal abortion decades before, light came in from the side window, outlining her expressive face. Behind her a cookie jar in the shape of a monk looked like her. I interviewed Helen for my book, Dignity: Lower Income Women Tell of Their Lives and Struggles, 1985.

Marriage at Age 15

Helen, the daughter of Yugoslavian immigrants to the iron mining range in Northern Minnesota, was the oldest of eight surviving children. Her mother died from overwork when the mother was 29, having given birth to nine children and running a boarding house for unmarried miners. The children were put in an orphanage after the mother’s death.

Helen cried as she described the abuses of the Depression-era orphanage. Then she told me of her marriage at age of 15 to a miner of 51 because he promised her he would take her siblings out of the children’s home. The man kept his promise but came down with miners’ lung and could no longer work. Right after the wedding, Helen became pregnant. She had to work as well as take care of her brothers and sisters. She also gave birth to four boys in rapid succession.

Ten-Gallon Crock

After the births, she went to her doctor to beg for birth control. “So then I said, ‘Dr. Keating, could you advise me what to do not to have any more babies?’

“He said, ‘Put your feet in a ten-gallon crock.’

“‘My God, is that all the advice I can get from you?’

“He said, ‘I would never advise any woman to use any preventative. Because if that preventative is strong enough to kill a live germ, it’s strong enough to kill your insides.’”

My Husband is Dying

Shortly before her husband’s death, Helen became pregnant again. She explained, “So I went to the doctor and said, ‘Doctor, you know that I cannot have a baby. Who’s going to take care of it? My husband is dying, we have no money coming in except this money that I work for and make.’

“‘Well,’ he says, ‘I can’t advise you where to go or what to do, and I cannot abort you.’”

Hemorrhaged

Desperate, Helen heard of the old woman in Duluth. After the woman stuck the wood up Helen’s vagina, Helen went home, then hemorrhaged while working behind the counter in a restaurant. She nearly died. She took a few days off, then worked like a bull moose the rest of her life. She cared for her sons and siblings, ran restaurants where she fed iron miners, and boot legged when all else failed.

She eventually sent her four sons to college and took in intellectually disabled adults to care for until she was no longer able to work. Through it all, she did grass-roots work in the democratic party and with the powerful labor union. Politicians came to her restaurant to argue with Helen and her patrons and to learn of the concerns of miners and their wives. 

U.S. Supreme Court

I never forgot her abortion or what it almost did to a desperate 24 year-old-woman. Her story lingers with me and has fueled my support of abortion rights. When I see opposite sides clamoring on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, Helen’s spirit seems to hover over the crowd. I remember clearly what it was like before Roe v. Wade in 1973. Women died.

In the next months, June Medical Services v. Russo presents the Supreme Court with the power to green-light extremely restrictive abortion laws. For Helen, and millions of others, we must fight to continue to keep the procedure safe.

Posted in abortion, birth control, Health care, Inequality, Injustice, miners, poverty, Uncategorized, white Americans, widows | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lucia and the Farm Workers’ Flag

The Crate

Lucia came north to Chicago from Mexico, nailed in a crate in back of a trunk in the winter. An old woman packed above her prayed for hours, then gasped for air, trembled, and lay still. A fifteen year old boy cried to her side, “My boots! My too tight boots. I can’t move my feet.”

At one point, the coyotes transporting the people without documents pounded on the outside of the truck, “La Migra! Lay still.” They stopped once to give them food and water. Three days after the trip began, the truck came to a final stop. “Out, out,” the men shouted in Spanish.

Hungry, thirsty, cold, sick and soiled, the passengers stumbled out into the snow. Lucia was greeted by her husband and oldest child. They were already working in the nurseries of Onarga, Illinois.

Lucia slowly recovered, worked in the fields, kept her face down low, and gave birth to two more children. She often had nightmares about the trip north and was too frightened to speak up to white Onarga residents when they abused her. Then she met Maria Elena Lucas.

Meeting Maria Elena

An exuberant, near mystic, Maria Elena believed deeply in the Mexican American Catholicism of her mother and her Yaqui grandmother’s spiritual beliefs. A single mother of seven, Maria Elena also worked in the fields, although she was a citizen and was not in hiding like Lucia and the rest of the Mexican workers. They were the ones who kept the nurseries going in the small, segregated and prejudiced town.

Revelation

One day, Maria Elena was working in the fields with the other farm worker laborers. Lucia, her husband, and children were among them. Several years later, Maria Elena told me what happened,

“It was not until my early years in Onarga, when I started going through all those terrible things together with the other migrant people that I knew God was calling me in some very special way.

“When we went through the wintertime and hunger and discrimination, and everything all together, I began to see people, not like I would see my kids, but different, and I would see myself not just as their friend, but I began to see myself as if God was telling me something.

Like Their Sister

“I don’t know how to even describe it. I began to see it not like my obligation, my duty, but like I was their sister, like I had to do something on behalf of God.

“. . .We were working out there together in the fields in the snow, and I was looking at the women and the men, and, somehow I began to change. It was like God was there, it was God I was seeing, and something was terribly wrong.

Not What God Wants

“I was very moved that I had to do something about it. I still do it. If I see something wrong, I say, ‘‘This is not what God wants. This is not the way it has to be.’ I get in a lot of trouble for feeling that way, but, oh, I loved those people.”

Something Holy

“It was like there was something holy between us. Sometimes we’d be out in the field working on a beautiful day, and I’d look up and the sun’d be shining, and the bees are flying and the children are crying and some are laughing. I’d be with Gloria Chiquita and Comadre Lencha and Lucia and people’d be picking tomatoes and putting them on their shoulders.

“I’d stop and look at them and say, ‘Don’t you feel something? Don’t you feel like it is something beautiful, like God is here?’ And sometimes Gloria Chiquita would look up and say, ‘Ah, yes, Maria Elena. It’s beautiful!’”

Organizing the Community

Maria Elena began to have dreams that the community should work together to create better conditions for all of their lives. First, they started a church, but it was not very helpful. Then they decided to teach the young people Mexican folk dances so they would believe in themselves and their culture. They received opposition from the white community but kept on with their work.

Finally, they came in contact with the Illinois Migrant Farm Ministry and Olgha Sierra Sandman, who taught Maria Elena about how the economic system was structured against the workers.

César Chávez

Olgha also taught how César Chávez and the United Farm Workers might help them. The UFW is a farm labor organizing union who fought for better working conditions for farm laborers in California. They were just beginning to work in the Midwest. Olgha taught Maria Elena organizing techniques, then Maria Elena taught the shy and scared, undocumented women of Onarga, including Lucia.

Lucia, who had been so frightened by her suffering for so many years, was an ardent student. They learned how to protest outside of grocery stores that were selling lettuce raised under conditions that oppressed farm workers.

Statue of Liberty

Maria Elena went on with her story. “One time we went to Kankakee (a nearby town), to demonstrate in front of a grocery store to get the people to boycott Red Coach Lettuce. . . Gloria Chiquita and Lucia and other women and children came with me, and we started picketing outside the grocery store. We did everything we knew so we wouldn’t break the law, but, still, policemen came to harass us.

“They kept saying we were breaking the law, and they were going to arrest us and put us in jail. And I was so worried about all the women without papers. Some of the younger women started to walk away, and the children began to cry.

Then Lucia did something very brave. I’ll never forget that day. The policeman was right in front of her face, and they were all around us, and suddenly, Lucia grabbed the United Farm Worker’s flag and stuck out her arms, holding it high in the air. She lifted her head up and looked up high like, so what. I dare you. Like the Statue of Liberty!

‘We Shall Overcome’

“Then Lucia started singing, ‘We Shall Overcome’ in Spanish.
Nosotros venceremos, nosotros venceremos,
Nosotros venceremous ahora.
O en mi corazōn, Yo creo,
Nosotros venceremos.

“And the other women started singing with her, and I started to function. I said to this guy, ‘I want to talk to my lawyer!’ I lied. I didn’t have a lawyer, but I went and talked to one of our organizers on a nearby telephone. He told me to stay calm and not give the police any information.”

The Rookie

“By the time I got back to the women, the sheriff was already there, and I was very calm. A crowd had developed. The sheriff said, ‘I want to tell you that we have a union too, and I know of your struggle. We know what’s happening. It was just a mistake. This is a rookie here.’ He looked at the policeman like the policeman was in big trouble. ‘You go on home or keep on your picket line as long as it’s peaceful and everything’s alright.’

De Colores

“Sometimes there was something very special between us farm workers. When we sang, De Colores,’ we all looked in each other’s eyes and touched each other in a very special way. When we’d hold meetings we’d hold hands, and when we’d sing, we’d become like one.

It was like you’d hug and say, ‘I love you and I care for you and God is with us and be strong.’ Sometimes we’d sing ‘De Colores’ or ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the fields while we were working, and it was something very moving.”

Community of Love

Thus, Lucia, who was nearly broken when she was nailed in the crates as she traveled to the U.S., stayed strong enough to survive. She met Maria Elena, whose consciousness had been raised by her friend Olgha, who had contact with the union organizer, Cesar Chavez. In the meantime, the women of Onarga formed a community of love.

Finally, that community was able to give each of them enough courage so they could fight with law enforcement, then hold up a farm worker flag, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” Lucia became an activist and with others fought to resist oppression for the rest of her life. I’ll never forget her story.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prisoners and Peas

The Values of Her Mother

Mary Robinson, an African American woman from Alabama, was 57 years-old when we talked in 2000. I was an oral historian, and my tape recorder ran on a nearby chair. Mary described a terrifying experience as a child that nevertheless taught her the values of her mother.

Tracking Dogs Following the Women’s Smell

Mary began to speak, “It was dark now. We was all in our little home, and we heard tracking dogs, sheriff’s dogs, in the distance. They was following the women’s smell. Lester Holley, the sheriff, was chasing them. Young as I was, I already knowed about Lester Holley’s violence.”

“Yes, he be vicious,” Mary’s ninety-year-old aunt, Mrs. Freeman, added.

“The sheriff had a little truck with a cage on the back of it where they’d haul the tracking dogs and where’d they throw prisoners when they finally got them. Whenever you saw this truck, you knowed some prisoners was out somewhere, running.

“Now the dogs ran in front of the truck, barking, and they run up our doorstep snarling and baring their teeth, and scaring me to death. Out past the dogs, this little old truck pulled over, and these white mens got out. The sheriff be tall and skinny, with a wide-brimmed hat.”

Coming Rain

Mary Robinson and I sat on a stuffed couch, while her aunt, Rebecca Freeman, rested in a nearby rocking chair. We had gathered on the country porch of Mary’s sister, Ann Lois. Ann Lois, still lovely despite being disabled by arthritis, rocked back and forth in rhythm to Mary’s speech. A fan barely moved the air that felt dense with coming rain, while an aged brown dog panted on the cement floor. In a corner, an old pop machine groaned.
Mary talked while Mrs. Freeman and Ann Lois listened, nodding their heads,

“Oh yes, yes she did. Lord have mercy.”

Swooped Off Our Past

“I go back now,” Mary said, “and I look at the land–Aunt Becky’s place, the sixty-three acres Daddy used to farm, the hills, the trees. New owners came, then swooped our past off the earth. They tore down our house, wiped up our poor little childhood, and threw it away. Now they got two three-hundred-thousand-dollar houses sitting where we loved and worked and bled.”

“Yes, that’s happened,” the others echoed.

“The new owners say, ‘Anytime y’all ever want to come and look around, you’re welcome, but nothing looks familiar no more. The barn, the smokehouse, our place has vanished. Even the dust has gone from beneath our feet. But I remember way, way back. I remember the dirt of our yard, our little house, and Mama.”

Mary Robinson and granddaughter

Ann Lois rocked and listened.

White Womens with Gray Prison-like Clothes

“One time when I was real little,” Mary continued, “we heard that five women prisoners broke out from a women’s prison about thirty miles from where we was living. The sun was almost down that night, but we could still discern things, and when I looked outside the house, Daddy wasn’t home, but I saw the women prisoners walking up our road. They was white womens, wearing gray-looking, prison dresses.”

“Yes, they was. They was coming.”

“Back then, all black folkses kept their yard as smooth dirt, with no grass. The womens swept it with a broom once a week. Mama was sweeping when she looked up and saw the prisoners. The women walked on up to our yard and over to Mama. Mama nodded her head at them. Us six kids stood in the doorway of our little house on stilts and stared.

“One of the womens said, ‘We need some food and some clothes. Do y’all have any? We’ve traveled a long way.’

Welcome To Peas

“Mama answered, ‘I ain’t got no clothes, the only thing I got is some peas, but you’re welcome to them. Let me finish sweeping this spot, then come on in.’ That’s what happened.” Mary paused and swatted at a fly with her hand. The wind with the smell of rain blew in the trees surrounding the porch.

“So Mama finished sweeping, set the broom against the house, and led them prisoners inside. ‘Y’all sit down now, and I’ll have the peas warm in just a minute’ Then she fed them, just as good as we had.

Daddy’s Shadow

“All at once my daddy’s shadow stood in the door, and he stepped inside. He knowed exactly who they was. They was sitting there, eating. Them prisoners looked at Daddy.

“‘Sarah!’ Daddy said.

“‘What?’

“‘What you doing?’

“‘What do it look like I’m doing?’

“‘Do you know who they is?’

“‘Yeah, I know who they is. They them prisoners that broke loose.’ She said it just like it was an everyday thing. My daddy was short and bald-headed, and he just stood in the doorway staring at them like he didn’t know what to do.”

Ann Lois and Mrs. Freeman chuckled. “Yes, he stood there.”

Shadows Outside the Doorway

“It was getting dark,” Mary continued, “and we didn’t have nothing but a lamp light, so the lamp was making shadows outside the doorway.

“One of the womens spoke to Daddy. ‘We not gonna hurt y’all. We’re not gonna do nothing. We just want something to eat.’

“So Daddy said,’Ain’t they looking for y’all?’

“‘Yeah.’ So they finished eating, and Mama gave them what was left. ‘We sure thank you,’ they said and hurried up the road.

Wide Brimmed Hat

“About an hour later, we heard the tracking dogs, the sheriff’s dogs, tracking dogs, and out past the dogs, this little old truck pulled over, and these white mens got out. The sheriff be tall and skinny, with a wide-brimmed hat.

“He asked Daddy and Mama, ‘You see white womens pass by here?’

“Daddy said, ‘Yeah.’ You couldn’t lie to Lester Holley. Black folkses believed he might beat you to death.‘Yeah, we seen them.’

“‘Where’d they go?’

“‘On up the road.’

“‘What they want?’

“Mama answered. ‘They was hungry, so I fed them.’

“The sheriff looked around our cabin, nodded, and left. Afterwards, Daddy said to Mama, ‘You shouldn’t have given them food.’

“Mama answered real firm, ‘They was hungry.’

God Let Me Grow Them Peas

“Sheriff Holley caught the womens, but what happened shows the type of person my mama was. And Aunt Rebecca too. She was just like Mama. I used to watch them all the time. Mama was constantly trying to give somebody something else, as if she was a maid of Howard Hughes. If you gave her opposition to it, she’d just say, “If God blessed you, then you ought to try to bless somebody else. God let me grow them peas.’

“See, that earth out there held Mama and her peas; the boards of our house had her hand prints all about them; and her feet left imprints in front of the stove. None of it, none, was no strangers to take.”

Bulldozed from the Earth

Mary’s family sharecropped the farm they lived on for a white owner/ farmer. After the owner died, he gave them a parcel of the land, but Mary’s father was cheated out of it.

Mary loved her small house and her parents passionately and bitterly resented that all trace of them had been bulldozed from the earth. Still, her mother’s spirit always stayed with her. Mary told me her mother’s story and that story with it’s innate goodness has stayed with me.

Posted in African American, Distrust, Inequality, Injustice, love. mother, Poverty, poverty, Prisons, Racism, Social Justice, Uncategorized, white Americans | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment