From Plains to Polestar

For Roberta Jane on her Ninetieth Birthday
(July 5, 2014)

When she was young, a way out West,
her family owned the dairy best;
her aunties smoked and drank and cussed,
then laughed out loud and lightly fussed.

On Okie sod she staked her claim,
then danced into a pilot’s brain.
Gettin’ hitched and movin’ East,
she planted firm where change is least.

Popping babies one and two,
a couple more, tired through and through,
Bobbie Jane, she kept ‘em thrivin’,
too many schools for daily drivin’.

‘Twas Bobbie this and Bobbie that,
fetch the hoe and get my hat,
please bake those tasty heads of cat,
feed the dogs and trim the fat.

She took to travelin’ east to west,
but always thought the beach was blessed.
She spoiled the babes and kissed their toes;
she sneaked them sweets and wiped their nose.

Then finally when she hit the chair,
an open book, a stance so fair,
her Bob and clan close arm in arm,
she gazed beyond her rich green farm.

Though far from home of younger years,
she found a hope to calm her fears,
she waited on a life held dear,
she whispered joy that’s ever near.

What Worth History?

A student of history need not rush to publish in response to every detail in the daily press. Important things never go away and are always relevant. The more time taken to connect events and properly sequence and emphasize them, the more potent the eventual story. Racial slander, commercial-political collusion, economic inequality, and popular outrage are ever-present. They are as ubiquitous as the Southern political operatives who sell the future of their fellows, and their own souls, for the sake of power and lucre in mimicry of the luxuries of more established and prosperous climes.

We all re-tell our stories. And the stories are the better for it. I repeat my stories and activities: over and over I rehearse the scripts, twist the unfoldings, and tweak the endings. They are the only stories and activities that I have. The Iliad was recited hundreds of thousands of times and changed with each telling. And the repetitions don’t seem to have hurt it at all.

Dirt, dirt, dirt – we come from dirt; we live from dirt (guided by intelligence, we hope); we return to dirt. There is nothing fearful or shameful in that fact – except when we forget it.

What is history worth and what is worth history? Why study history?

When I returned, at almost forty, to finish my college degree, my two most inspiring history teachers, my first one after returning and my last one, were confined to wheelchairs. Both were near retirement and not far from death. The search started in Italy and ended up in the American South. Proximity to toil and the soil pervaded both perspectives on history. Yet for all of this, there was a wonder at the endless spectacle and peculiarities of human history, especially pertaining to intricate, evolving human cultures. I suspect that I forgot the dirt of life at times in early college days, but I never forgot for long once I discovered history through the eyes, voices, passions, and reading recommendations of these two men.

Both professors were first and foremost storytellers and social beings, highly interested in cultures and institutions – in outstanding individuals and the life patterns of ordinary people. They were more interested in generating interest, materials-management skills and synthesis, befitting any professional, than in frail and filigreed scholarship for a closeted few. Both men shaped and shoved more students into forms of professional life other than academics. If a degree was needed for a career, why not choose a broad area of study that is rife with intrigue and relevance to life in all its connected manifestations over a commercially specialized focus?

For the last course of my belated undergraduate degree, in the winter and spring of 1990, it was my good fortune to study the post-Civil War history of the South at Tennessee State University. A more decent mind and gentle personality than my esteemed professor would be hard to find in academia, or any profession, at any time. He was familiar with his South and its people, he was compassionate but analytical about what happened there. However, he was not overly optimistic about where it might go – neither were my significant teachers at Memphis State University about the course that lies ahead for the people of the nation and the world.

Yet no matter how hard the grind, how pointless the day, returning to my stories – these stories of generations – revives my outlook and my body. How can history do more than prepare the mind and preserve the spirit?

While working on a short essay entitled “Guilt by Association” and its related material, pondering the worth of effort even in my sleep, I had a dream. I was a young boy in an enclosed horse-drawn carriage at a large rural event when a robust baby boy was thrust through the open window in a moment of wide-spread celebration. Years later, in a side room at that very setting, I was presented with an opportunity to ask questions of that, now, wise old man. A lifetime had jumped in an instant from birth to sagacity. In those minutes, talking with the experienced, sage Benjamin Franklin about people, events, and the mechanisms of life, my world view expanded exponentially: dirt and destiny combined to lift me above the common fray and into to it all at once.

That is why we study history. That is why a few magnetic storytellers rise from nowhere to teach it by being themselves.

May these fallen guides, born of practical experience, books, and noble goals, continue to speak in stronger voices that we can understand:
      Dr. Marcus W. Orr (1925–1990) – Memphis State University;
      Dr. Samuel H. Shannon (1934-2003) – Tennessee State University.

Guilt by Association

Click here to read a long review of related books.

“That the New South advocates perpetuated the Old South standard of an inexpensive and tractable labor force stands out as most harmful to the economy in that it forestalled the emergence of a vigorous worker-consumer society.”

* * *

Anger swells as I re-read my summations, drawn from the scholarship of excellent historians. The tale of Old South and New South, of populist Tom Watson of Georgia, is a modern-day screenplay. Elizabeth Warren is exhibit A.

Nation, read it and weep, for once again the experience of the South is a culture in a petri dish in which the illogic of a nation festers. Going back over one hundred years, we clearly hear the same calls for economic justice, the case against less government regulation – counterarguments to seedy, pernicious manipulations overwhelmingly aimed at forwarding the interests of concentrated capital at the expense of the public interest.

A student of history need not rush to publish in response to every detail in the daily press. The response is sometimes better voiced by authoritative, quiet history, for the truth is embedded there.

* * *

“The cotton mills, much as the cotton fields, became entangled in a financial and marketing system deleterious to self-sufficiency and growth, and without governmental or industry devices for correction. The earning and purchasing power of the Southern laborer was held low and inert for Southern and Northern enterprises alike – as a matter of Southern business and political policy. The laborer’s immovable wage was his contribution to regional development – his memorial to the original cotton mill uplift of poor whites.”

* * *

Weeks ago, I read a story in The New Yorker about West Virginia and have been out of sorts since. [1] I experienced the urge to cry with shame and fury over the insanity in our midst, about a people crushed by calculated deceit and their own self-deception. My family’s biography embraces people in those hills. Where did they, we, go wrong?

One bright spot about living in the politics of Tennessee today is that at least I don’t live in West Virginia, or Texas, or a half dozen other states that are led by worse misanthropes. For some reason, now when I think of the electorate of West Virginia, I think of the misguided, benighted people of Russia. Though not strictly of the Confederacy, West Virginia today, in its worst characteristics, seems Southern, too. What makes a people screw themselves right into the ground and contaminate it for generations to come on their way down?

The issues stay with us, particularly in the South. Nationwide we confront loud voices and maneuvers to lower standards of education and health, to neglect the environment and public safety, to proliferate and protect tax shelters, to suppress wages, to debilitate organized labor, to bait race, religion and sexual orientation, to promote wholesale exclusion and vigilante violence. We look away, but these issues never go away in Dixie.

* * *

This story goes way back, but we can start at the period following the end of the American Civil War. When I first read C. Vann Woodward’s account of the history of political economy in the South after the Civil War, I was both enraged and saddened beyond easy, scholarly recovery. The buying (or selling) of the South was the United States’ first foray into colonialization on steroidal dollars. I reacted mostly to the selling, but the two-faced buying was galling as well.

We have our green patches and charming ways in the South, but when we lift up the old full-grained oak boards lying on our sacred ground, they are riddled with worm holes and rot. If we don’t look underneath, we do not see the disintegration until it is too late. We can go our relaxed, pretending way, waltzing with our precious manners, but we harbor guilt by association with the cheerful neglect that is the gigantic mayonnaise blob, a cancer of the mind, that is Southern political style and anti-husbandry still eating at the core of our wallets, our health, and our valued earth.

The Roberts Court sees no problem with buying political influence, thinking it one of the honorable traditions of American history. It is a part no doubt – but not one to be esteemed or prolonged. Collusion between cash and public policy has had a comfortable rocker on the front porch of state and local government in the South for a very long time; it still sits there, smiling and rocking and getting fat.

We have seen this before and we are seeing it again: low-wage debates, rapacious mineral extractions, political skulduggery for personal gain, people not seeing the trees of their personal interests for the forest of moral and cultural hocus-pocus, for the thicket of junk, cultural distraction and social intimidation. Even so, one can hardly say that things are worse today. That is except for the growing sinkhole of willful unawareness – and the speed of negative change. We have a high-school- and college-educated citizenry who has the past record and expert analysis at its fingertips. We know that things we do are harmful to our long-term economy and to our planet, but we continue to do them.

This introduces ethical dilemmas of a whole new magnitude. Degradation of the planet and the future are no longer merely aesthetic or Biblically moral concerns, or former constitutional concerns of the Founding Fathers: they are concerns of survival – not just of ways of life or peoples, but of a habitable planet and everything of human value on it – far more complex than the problems that the old holy lands and wild frontiers once presented – though I am fairly sure that water-poisoning was a more grievous offense way back then than it is today.

Pollution, corruption, what difference do they make? In isolation these crimes injure but we struggle through. However, when connected and magnified as in modern day, destructive influences are more rapid and fundamental and can do irreparable harm to our social fabric and earth. Though difficult to imagine, over a few centuries, damage to our world could move beyond even human adaptability.

* * *

“The Farmers’ Alliance platform of 1889, formulated in St. Louis and endorsed by the Knights of Labor, highlights agrarian and labor grievances. Beyond a doubt it was a program containing radical elements: the end of national banks, the prevention of futures speculation, ‘the free and unlimited coinage of silver, reclamation of excessive lands granted or sold to corporations or aliens[,] decrease of the tax burden on the masses, fractional paper currency, and government ownership and operation of means of transportation and communication.’ One essential point worthy of special note is that while these allied individualists were engaged in unprecedented cooperative and organizational activities for self-help, they saw ultimate relief as depending on an expansion of government activism. They were not opposed to private property; theirs was a critique of raw capitalism, offering the corrective of a regulated capitalism compatible with democracy and workable on a broad, open front rather than on an exclusive one. As was proven in subsequent progressive legislation, it was a corrective that strengthened capitalism for agrarian and urbanite alike by bolstering consumer purchasing power and public confidence, and by building public management skills and local markets.”

* * *

Perhaps the widespread success of consumerism is our environmental problem. But I don’t think that is entirely true. Economic justice is implied in the growth of a middle class and a rising standard of living – to a point. That does not absolve leaders, Southern or Northern, from better management for public good. Nor does it absolve individual consumers and voters from their responsibility to not only see but to care for the trees of self-interest and public interest in tandem.

I will not spell out further how the South’s experience pertains, in part because that ruins the intellectual fun and in part because I have spelled it out in a long monologue, disguised as a glorified review of books, that I composed in 1990. It is like a long comparative review found in a famous New York publication, except that it is longer and less polished – and it conspicuously lacks niceties. (Links are included at the top and bottom of this much shorter screed, though I do not expect any takers. The bits of the cycle about Tom Watson might, however, induce some to take a look at that enlightening book.) [2]

FOOTNOTES:

1. Evan Osnos, Letter from West Virginia, “Chemical Valley,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2014.

2. WARNING: As a precaution, I advise students to refrain from quoting or referencing anything from the linked essay (above and below) without returning to the source material; be particularly cautious about recycling my summarizing and paraphrasing statements which are outside of quotation marks. (NOTE: The extracts above between double quotation marks are my statements and not quoted source material.)

The elaboration of a reading assignment presented in the linked essay goes the extra mile and is spot on in melding key sources. The resulting product could point determined seekers in the right direction. But for the advent of Google Books searches, however, the facts and opinions embedded and commingled therein would be lost to curiosity beyond service as a passing journalistic synthesis and a tedious entertainment.

A real nerd could fault this linked essay for not going further in terms of academic notations that would have given it more utility and weight as a reference for others. But on the other hand, it goes well beyond what was asked for and required. At any rate, the professor who received it offered no such Pecksniffery in return.

Click here to read a long review of related books.