RBG, Donald Trump. and me

You’ll be excused for thinking that Donald Trump, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I had little in common. But last week’s news of RBG’s death and Trump’s announcement that he’ll form a 1776 Commission tasked with promoting patriotic education left me thinking about how all three of us grew up studying the same version of American history. 

I’ve long been interested in history. During third-grade trips to the library, I gravitated toward books with bright orange covers: biographies of famous Americans. Maybe because so few women were in the series, I specifically recall reading about Julia Ward Howe and Dolly Madison. Black Americans? There was George Washington Carver. 

In eighth grade I learned that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but over whether states could leave the Union. 

In college I took enough history classes (including student teaching) to become certified to teach high school history in the state of Virginia. My history teachers were all men, and the material we studied was mainly about war and conquest. Good American men (all of them white) led other men into battle and through their courage and superior abilities overcame the enemy. Then men (all of them white) helped the country recover from whichever war they’d fought so that they’d be ready to fight the next one. 

My current writing project has taken me to North Carolina newspapers from the 1890s. Editors supported an amendment to the state constitution imposing a poll tax and a literacy test for voters. No one was subtle about the amendment’s purpose. It was to “deprive the Negro from suffrage” and “restore to white men the rightful superiority which God gave them.” The amendment passed.

In Begin Again Eddie Gaude, refers to the lies about American history. “According to these lies, America is fundamentally good and innocent….[But] the United States has always been shadowed by practices that contradict our most cherished principles.” 

Trump says that in contrast to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project his 1776 Commission will teach a more patriotic history. I fear he wants to return to stories of white men and their wars. After all, there’s nothing like conquest to make a man feel virile. The commission will probably add a sprinkle of well-behaved women and Blacks who knew their place. Omit lynchings, Black disenfranchisement, immigrants kept in detention camps, race riots, labor riots, women arrested for distributing literature on contraception. Oh, and slavery of course, except masters who were kind to their slaves.

In her youth RBG, too, studied the “old-fashioned” approach to American history. Instead of limiting her education, though, to white men’s glorious achievements, she paid attention to the history of racial and gender inequality. To the history of Black disenfranchisement and job discrimination against Blacks and women. Instead of thinking about battles won, she focused on those yet needing to be fought—not on a battlefield but in a courtroom. And in the process she made history.

Encountering the migrant

A recent photo shows me standing in front of a saguaro cactus, my arms spread in imitation. Ah, southern Arizona in March, when flowers bloom and birds are passing through. For me the Sonoran Desert is a great place to hike.

The number of illegal migrants crossing our southern borders, trekking the desert I hikeincreased between February and March (the same months retirees from the North migrate to Arizona.) Trump would have us imagine those coming from the south as invaders, most of them drug dealers, criminals.

On TV this morning camera footage out of Mexico showed a large group making camp at a city playground. Children play on swing sets while women sort through piles of donated clothing, searching for items that will fit their families.

These women and children are among the Honduran asylum seekers Trump would have us fear.

For those of us who have options, it’s hard to empathize with people who don’t. Hard to comprehend the fears that drive women and men to pack a few belongings, gather their children, and make a dangerous journey across arid land by foot.

Last week, during the flight home from Tucson, I read Crossing with the Virgin: stories from the migrant trail. Though published eight years ago, the book is still relevant. Three Samaritans, humanitarian volunteers from southern Arizona, write of their experiences. They patrol desert roads and trails searching for migrants who need water, food, and/or medical care. There’s a protocol, rules about what they can and cannot do. For example, they cannot offer a ride. If border patrol personnel are at the scene, the aid workers must ask permission to offer water or food.

Aid volunteers understand migrants not as criminals but as human beings desperate to survive. Migrants leave their homes not for adventure but because home has become a perilous place or because there is no work. Danger awaits them on their journey: dehydration, hunger, bandits who steal their money.

And border patrols. Some personnel are kind, some hostile. Homeland Security buses are parked out in the desert. Even in February and March the afternoon heat on a bus can be suffocating. Once the bus is filled, it carries shackled migrants to detention, where they are locked in a 20X20-foot cell until they appear before a judge.

Reading this book has made me uncomfortable. Can I return to Arizona, hike in the desert, and return to the comfort of a rented apartment, all the while choosing to be blind to the human tragedy taking place within a few miles?

The fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination has been marked with photos. One stands out: I am a man on picket signs carried by protestors of the Memphis sanitation strike.

Empathy doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It’s easier to consider migrants as law breakers than as humanity caught in a crisis. Yet photos call out to us: I am a man; I am a woman; I am a child.

Sexual assault in a sexualized culture

I’ve never had sex on a desk. Or in an airplane. When I told my grandchildren this, they shouted “Nana!” in embarrassment. I wanted them to know that loving sex between partners who respect each other is not a rip-her-clothes-off/push-her-against-the-wall norm.

Where would they get the idea otherwise? Everywhere.

Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Al Franken, members of Congress and their staffs, etc.etc. As of October 24, “Twitter confirmed to CBS News that over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag “#MeToo,” with 85 countries that had at least 1,000 #MeToo tweets” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/metoo-reaches-85-countries-with-1-7-million-tweets/)

Yes, women are speaking out. They’re disclosing the psychological injury of sexual assault. As a result, commentators are already claiming a “Cultural shift.” Now that powerful men are being confronted, either out of conscience or fear of getting caught, they’ll stop their abusive behavior.

I doubt it. The end of sexual violence against women would require a volcanic shift in media, where women exist for the benefit of men.

Like many Americans, males and females of all ages (my grandchildren included), I watch TV and movies. I like a good story. Readers who know me might be shocked at the kinds of movies I see. I’m sometimes shocked myself. Man meets woman; man desires woman; man f—s woman. Along the way a mystery is solved, a wrong is made right, love wins.

Let’s face it: we live in a highly sexualized society. Sex sells. Advertisers and the entertainment industry know that. It sells cars; it sells pharmaceuticals. Sex is on prime-time TV. Explicit sex. Aggressive sex.

Where do such messages lead? All men, not just men with political or social power, are led to believe they have a right to touch a woman’s breast, stick their tongue in her mouth, or do more.

I often wonder how young women are influenced by so much sex in the media. Have they been persuaded that male acceptance requires submission? I worry that my granddaughters, based on what they see in the media, will think they must give in to sexual advances.

Not that women don’t have hormones and needs of our own. In the 1960s we claimed our own sexuality and desires. But I’d wager that most want a sexual relationship with someone they know and care about.

Americans’ wishes are full of contradictions. We want services without paying taxes. We want cheap goods, yet they should be manufactured in the U.S.

We want men to respect women as equals in the work place. Yet everything men watch on their computers and TV screens shouts that women exist for male pleasure.

Can women, by speaking truthfully of our experiences, bring about a cultural shift? Only if the media quits portraying sex as an expectation of every encounter between a man and a woman.

And media, currently controlled by men, will never do that.

 

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

A united work force

(Excerpt from Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987)

1940 or ‘41

Daniel often paused outside International Harvester gates at the end of his shift to listen to Jack Carpenter, a union organizer from Chicago. Black metal lunch pails in hand, weary men congregated, a few, like Daniel, clustering around Carpenter. Most, though, lurked in the background lest they be identified as opposed to management. The company’s goal was to make as much money as it could, Carpenter said, and it didn’t give a hoot about the workers. By uniting, organizing a union, the workers could unshackle themselves from the absolute control the company had over them.

There was little doubt in the men’s minds that Carpenter was right. Factory laborers had to work six days a week with no paid vacations, no paid holidays, and no benefits. Anyone unfortunate enough to get sick was quickly replaced by someone who was healthy. Conditions at the plant were hazardous, particularly in the foundry, where men worked with molten hot iron, and out on the tracks, where they did back-breaking tasks without the help of machinery. Workers were often severely burned or injured. Sometimes the company hired a new man, and a month later, without giving any reason, fired an employee who had been on the job five years. There was nowhere to go for redress. Wartime production had not yet begun, and the fact that people still desperately needed jobs made them subject to the whims of business.

At first Daniel didn’t approve of unions, but every day, when he got off work, exhausted and covered with grime, he couldn’t help but think that a united work force was the only means to better conditions and better pay.

Daniel: “Here I was, a college graduate with little hope of using my skills or reaching my potential. As long as laborers were afraid to organize, they were powerless. Besides, if I joined the union, what did I have to lose?”

On a Sunday afternoon in late spring, four workers from Harvester met with Carpenter. Three weeks and four meetings later the smoke-filled room was packed, mostly with men but also with a few women. Sitting on kitchen chairs, footstools, and the floor, they strategized into the early morning hours about organizing a local. In this setting a person’s color wasn’t as important as what he or she could contribute to the cause.

The Richmond plant was the first Harvester plant to organize. Aware that if one factory unionized others would follow, the company tried to frighten and isolate leaders.

Calling the strike in ‘41 was risky. The union was new and still unsure how much support it had among the workers. Its representatives spent hours at the negotiation table, trying to reach a contract with management, but couldn’t get anywhere. Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon union leadership informed Harvester that a vote would be taken that night and a strike was inevitable.

 

(Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987) is the story of an independent white woman, a talented black man, and the times in which these two remarkable people lived. The book is available wherever books are sold.)

Thoughts about Confederate monuments

I pulled out a tissue at each box placed in the dimly-lit room. The sounds of sniffling surrounded me. The exhibit at The Rooms—a St. John’s, Newfoundland, museum—used artifacts, letters, and families’ remembrances to tell the story of the Caribou Regiment. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1916, World War I), the Caribou engaged the enemy at Beaumont-Hamel. As part of the British Empire, Newfoundland sent 780 men into that battle. The next morning 68 survivors reported for roll call. A hundred years later the loss of a generation of men remains a deep sorrow in Newfoundlanders’ collective memory.

A young German woman was staying at the same B & B as my husband and I. What would she think of the exhibit at The Rooms, I wondered, her ancestors having been the enemy? Had her great-grandparents also mourned the death of a brother, a father?

The victors of war have permission to publicly grieve our fallen. We have symbols and monuments, holidays even. How do heirs of those who fought for unjust causes deal with their grief? How do they reconcile sins of the past with a profound sense of having lost thousands, if not millions, of lives?

My husband’s great-uncle fought for the Confederacy and at 18 died of dysentery as a prisoner of war. We know little about him. Like many on both sides of the Civil War, he was probably a farm boy who had never killed anything other than animals for food.

Isn’t that who fights most wars? Young men and women, some barely adults. They are conscripted, indoctrinated, and sent to kill an enemy designated by the powerful. In the 1860s owners of large plantations bought and sold human beings, worked them mercilessly to increase the owners’ wealth. Seeing their way of life threatened, prosperous slave holders sent young men who had nothing to gain to fight their, the land owners’, war.

I return to my earlier question: How do descendants of those who fought for unjust causes deal with a grief that time does not heal?

I’m not defending the Confederacy. Neither do I want to defend our “heritage.” Our white Southern heritage is embroiled with enslavement, Jim Crow laws, lynching. The list of atrocities is endless.

As we tackle the Confederate monument controversy, we need to think creatively. Perhaps we can find a way to grieve the deaths of young farmer-soldiers, denounce the treason of the region’s political and military leaders, and build monuments that recognize the contributions of slave ancestors of African Americans.

 

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

Since Charlottesville

As a white girl growing up in the 1950’s South, I was socialized to suppress my anger. “Smile though your heart is aching,” Nat King Cole (a frequent target of racists) sang. “If you can’t say something positive, don’t say anything at all,” my mother taught.

When Trump was elected, I was devastated. I recognized the evil his new status as president had unleashed. Since then my heart has been aching. I am terrified. I am furious.

Not wanting to dump my anger and all the negatively I’ve been feeling on social media, I’ve taken a break from blogging. On Facebook I’ve mostly “Liked” and “Shared” what others post about the political and social climate under the Trump administration. Besides, plenty of excellent writers have been expressing my feelings much more eloquently than I can. Let them speak for me. I even set a new goal: find positive stories to post on my website (which I never got around to).

I thought I was doing the right thing, being silent these past seven months. Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville challenged that notion.

I may not have profound insight. I may not have profound words. That doesn’t mean my voice is worthless. I plan to express my anger and fears on my site in coming days.

For now, let me just say—not with eloquence—that as a white woman, I abhor the racism displayed this past weekend in Charlottesville.

 

Nancy Werking Poling’s most recent book is Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). It is available in paperback and on Kindle.

Trump’s take on Andrew Jackson

President Trump’s May 1 remarks about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War may point to something more problematic than a lack of historical knowledge. “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War….he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

Trump is not just uninformed; he is promoting a revised history, and I doubt that it’s accidental.

Educated in a southern high school, I learned that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but over states’ right to secede from the Union. A friend, an intelligent woman, recently said she graduated from high school uncertain about who had won the Civil War. Only a year ago I listened to a young libertarian/survivalist couple enthusiastically tell about a writer popular with them and their friends. The Civil War was not fought over slavery, the author has written.

We’ve seen Trump’s ability to creative alternative facts: his inauguration was attended by more people than any other in history; President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. The news on TV is mostly fake news.

Maybe it is not ignorance, but a strategy for concentrating political power. “A totalitarian makes war on truth, perverts the assumptions that underlie critical thinking, and masters the dark art of propaganda” (Cynthia Tucker, http://www.pressconnects.com/story/opinion/columnists/2017/03/20/trumps-supporters-still-back-himregardless-debunked-lies/99274946/).

Is Trump deliberately promoting a revisionist view of history? If so, to what end? Who will benefit? Who will be the losers?

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

Why this old lady blogs

“Blog about a day in the life of an author,” a site on marketing books suggests. Okay. I get up, do a Sudoku, read the newspaper, go sit at my computer for several hours.

“Blog about the writing process,” another site recommends. Okay. I compose a sentence, go get a snack, return to my computer, delete the sentence, go to the bathroom, return to my computer, write another sentence.

“Avoid blogging about politics.” Oh-oh.

My new book, Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987), is due out soon. It’s time to promote it through blogging and tweeting, leave politics to the real pundits.

I doubt that I’ll be able to.

In 2007 I started blogging for the fun of it. I wrote about finding an old photo at a garage sale and having my Sunday afternoon nap interrupted by evangelizing teenagers.

Then came the 2008 election primary. Herman Cain, the pizza guy, promoted his 9-9-9-Plan. Michele Bachmann owned a Christian counseling center claiming to transform gay clients into heterosexuals. Rick Santorum, Senator-in-a-Sweater-Vest, promoted teaching intelligent design along with evolution in schools. I felt compelled to bring an older woman’s wisdom to the political discussion. A dose of common sense, I’d like to think.

In the current political climate, which is even more frightening than the 2008 Republican primary, I probably won’t write much that is unrelated to what our government is doing.

I am a grandmother. I am a woman who pays attention to what is happening beyond my home. I feel an urgency to be in conversation about the potential erosion of our democracy, the reality of global warming, the danger of a blustering, confrontational foreign policy, and the marginalization of groups because of race, religion, sexual orientation, or developmental difference.

I can’t be superficial. Neither, I guess, do I want readers who are.

For those who have been Feeling the Bern

If you’ve been Feeling the Bern, I share your heartache over not winning. For I have memories.

1968. Images still clear in my mind: the film clip of a South Vietnamese officer putting a gun to the head of a young Viet Cong and pulling the trigger; a sign saying, “The Vietnamese didn’t fight in our Civil War.” President Lyndon Johnson had escalated a war in southeast Asia that many Americans, especially young people, demonstrated against. In opposition to the war, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota had the courage to challenge the incumbent Johnson for the presidential nomination. Male students cut their long hair and shaved so they could go door to door rallying support for McCarthy. Largely because of young people’s passion, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Who knows what might have happened had not the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., been assassinated four days after Johnson’s announcement? Or had Robert Kennedy, who had entered the Democratic race, not been shot and killed in San Francisco?

Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic candidate. Many young people felt so disillusioned they refused to vote. Richard Nixon was elected, and we all know how that turned out.

What did I learn from this period of disillusionment? That Americans will elect a crook before they’ll elect anyone veering far to the left.

This doesn’t mean we should disengage from politics. It means we need to find new ways to bring about change. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Work for progressive candidates down list. Even school boards are political entities. In North Carolina, where I live, our state representatives have enacted legislation abhorrent to anyone concerned about justice issues. A Democratic president and democratic governors need legislators who will work with them, not obstruct them as Republicans in Congress have done.
  2. Get informed on issues you care about and work for the candidates who share your concerns.
  3. By working I mean contact candidates through their staffs, ask what needs to be done.

In 1968 many of my generation lost our innocence. But we came out of the tragedies and disappointments wiser. And of course, older.

Is Hillary so dishonest?

Mom was the nurturer, greeting us when we came home from school, preparing our meals. Dad was the boss, the enforcer of rules, often with the palm of his hand. This clarity of roles gave us a sense of security.

Nowadays Mom goes to work and Dad has relinquished much of his authority. The old order has shifted in other ways. If we’re white or heterosexual we’ve lost assurance of our superiority. Black and white intermarry; homosexuals marry. On the global stage the clear issues of the Cold War have vanished, replaced with a militant Muslim enemy that strikes unexpectedly. Our lifestyle of big cars and unlimited use of electricity is affecting Earth’s climate, a science beyond our comprehension.

We older folks yearn for Mom and Dad—as they once were. Enter Donald Trump, the authority figure who’ll return our country to how it used to be.

But Hillary—she doesn’t behave the way a mother’s supposed to. She’s not a national nurturer but a trained lawyer who as a senator voted on complex issues; who as Secretary of State negotiated with leaders of other countries. She’s been hardened by battle.

Anyone who’s seen TV commercials, even if they’re muted, recognizes the little green creature advertising Geiko and associates the Statue of Liberty with Liberty Mutual. The purpose of repetition in advertising is to keep a product in the viewer’s mind, to repeat an idea so often that it’s finally accepted as truth

So it has been with Hillary’s reputation. Since 2008 Republicans have anticipated her candidacy in this election and committed themselves to eroding the perception of her character. They exploited the Benghazi attack, sponsoring multiple investigations and repeating the message that she couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth. They exploited her using a private email server, though other government officials have done the same. All the while the press allowed itself to be manipulated into continuously analyzing opinions about her integrity—until her dishonesty was taken as fact.

I’m not suggesting Clinton is beyond reproach. Her experience is so broad there’s something in her voting record or foreign policy actions to offend anyone. I am convinced, though, that public perceptions of her dishonesty are the result of a non-stop propaganda campaign.

Our job as voters in this election isn’t to choose the most nurturing mother or the most intimidating father. It’s to select an individual who understands and supports the Constitution, who appreciates the complex web of international relationships, whose knowledge is respected worldwide.

A person who firmly believes in “liberty and justice for all.”