“I Am Not Your Negro”


Author James Baldwin undertook a project in 1979, to tell about the lives of three of his friends who had been assassinated in the 1960s: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. He had only written thirty pages of notes by the time he died eight years later of stomach cancer.

Raoul Peck, Haitian film-maker put together the movie I Am Not Your Negro using Baldwin’s own words (sometimes from TV talk shows, sometimes read by Samuel L. Jackson) to express what he felt about race in America. The result is powerful.

Early in the movie there is footage shot in the South in the early sixties of hate-filled white people carrying signs. One says, Miscegnation is Communism. Another says it is the Antichrist. It’s dolefully ironic that miscegnation (sexual relations between black and white) was initiated by white slaveowners who then blamed black men for wanting to rape white women, thus turning the dynamic inside-out. Black men are still blamed for their sexuality, though, just as women are blamed for tempting Adam to eat the apple. A good myth is hard to give up.

Also early in the film is a black girl walking alone to go to a white high school surrounded by whites carrying signs saying they don’t want to go to school with blacks. They’re jeering and spiting at her too. Baldwin speaks, saying that he saw this footage in France, where he was then living, and besides being enraged was filled with shame, adding, “One of us should have been there with her. ”

It’s hardly surprising he died of cancer. Cancer and heart disease are in part caused by stress, and he had the stress of being both black and gay. A recent article says it’s a shame the movie didn’t address his being gay too, because Baldwin did in his writing. The three of his novels I remember best spoke of homosexuality as well as race. Actually, I don’t think Giovanni’s Room talked about race. So sexuality was very important to Baldwin too. He comments in this movie that black men aren’t allowed to show their sexuality (that may be less true now), and that movie star John Wayne, who spent most of his time on screen admonishing Indians, had permission, because of his whiteness, not to grow up. It was okay for him to kill Indians. He didn’t have to learn to negotiate with them as equals.

Baldwin met Medgar Evers early in the 1960s and traveled with him as Evers attempted to gather evidence about voting suppression. The sixties weren’t far advanced when he was murdered himself. Baldwin says he was extremely frightened traveling through Mississippi, but also felt he needed to do that as a witness, and that he needed to travel widely as a witness. Eventually he also traveled to Georgia and Alabama where some of the famous Civil Rights protests had been. More footage of police beating defenseless men and women.

Baldwin says he watched Malcolm X and Martin Luther King come from very different positions to eventually drift into almost exactly the same position. Footage is shown of Malcolm X criticizing King for not wanting blacks to fight back when abused by whites. However understandable his feeling, it’s also obvious that taking on whites in a race war in which they would be vastly outnumbered and outgunned would be a self-defeating strategy. King replies to Malcolm X by saying that he sees love as being a powerful force rather than a cowardly surrender. Did Malcolm X come to appreciate that position before he died? Baldwin says he was in London with a friend taking a day off when he learned of Malcolm X’s assassination.

Baldwin came home from France in the later sixties. He said he missed very little about America, but missed his brother, sister, their children, and his mother. He was visiting them in 1968 when his sister was called away from the table. When she returned she said nothing, but he felt something was wrong. Then she said, “Martin Luther King was just killed. Reporters are coming to get your reaction.”

He attended the funeral, and said he tried not to cry, felt that many others were trying not to cry too, and for the same reason: they didn’t know if they could stop.

He felt he had to visit the widows and children of those leaders, also not easy. Perhaps especially because none of the three lived to be as old as forty.

I was vaguely aware of the strife of the sixties, but didn’t really feel it. I had problems of my own taking up my attention. But the sixties shaped my political views. In the 1950s we had had a comic book portraying Rosa Parks taking a white person’s seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refusing to get up. That’s where I first heard of Dr. King.

In 1963 I was with my grandmother while she watched coverage of the March on Washington, and got to see in real time Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck. What the Civil Rights movement was protesting was so obviously unfair that I didn’t see any alternative to being a liberal. It seemed that all conservatives were racists, a term that has since been used too lightly for too many frivolous reasons. No one in the Civil Rights movement has had the kind of gravitas Dr, King had, which is a shame. He and the other two were murdered because they held up a mirror to show us all what we were, causing panic fear. People comfortable with segregation felt their world was coming apart, and had no answer but violence. After King was killed, many others felt THEIR world was coming apart too. If my heart was in the right place in feeling sympathy for the movement (which is debatable), I did nothing about it, to my shame.

Baldwin didn’t only report his feelings about the movement and the death of his friends (as well as many other more anonymous people), but looked at the larger picture of America, its racism and other forms of injustice. He saw white America being as entangled and imprisoned by racism as black America, and striking out in violent resentment of it. Black Americans never wanted to come here, but neither did whites, he says. Using blacks as slaves made them prisoners too.

The fact is that the American way of life hasn’t made many people happy. Satiated, in some cases, but not happy. That many of us have secure lives that most people in the world can’t even imagine, and yet are fearful of people unlike ourselves is ironic, if not paradoxical. Look at some of the things we lead the world in: numbers of prisoners, people killed by police, consumption of illegal (and legal) drugs. Those things don’t indicate a happy culture. More people have a higher standard of living than any time previous in the world, but they aren’t happy, and their standard of living comes at the price of devastation of other peoples and the waste of natural resources. They, who are WE, prefer fantasy to reality, because experiencing the reality of what WE are complicit in would mean we must experience overpowering guilt and responsibility. Nobody wants that. So we’ll have to pay in another way.

The climactic scene of the movie is footage from the Dick Cavett show. A new guest enters and says he disagrees with what he’s heard Baldwin say, and asks if there isn’t any other way for him to connect than through race? Surely he must feel more connection with a white author than with an illiterate black.

Baldwin answers that the man is invoking an idealistic vision that he has seen no evidence of. Is he to trust not only himself, but his relatives and children to an idea which he’s never seen manifest in real life? The other seems to have nothing to say–or maybe it’s just that I can’t imagine him saying anything to refute Baldwin.

The idea that racism was once a problem, but is no longer, is popular in some circles. When people complain about it, or even try to talk about it, they’re said to be “race-baiting”. I don’t suppose people with this view are even insincere–that they’re aware of. One such person friended me on Facebook during the past year or so, complimenting me on the posts I’d written on this blog, and trying to persuade me of his views. He was nice to me, never being rude when I stated my own views (which he probably saw as liberal cliches), and even defending me from some of his friends. But I couldn’t agree that racism was no longer a problem, nor could I support his candidate for president. I’m not sure if this movie would mean much to him. I’d like to think it could open his eyes, but that might be too much to expect. There are quite a few people who seem pretty sincere in their disagreement with what I believe. And I certainly am not always right.

The movie Raoul Peck has made isn’t perfect. As one writer complained in a recent article, he didn’t address Baldwin’s homosexuality, even though Baldwin wasn’t shy about that. If he had, the movie would probably have been longer, and even more powerful. As the writer pointed out, Baldwin was criminalized in two ways: not only as a black man, but as a gay man. He was doubly an outsider in ways most whites don’t experience, unless they really want to. Most of us want to be accepted, so don’t confront the injustices we see. That’s what is known as white privilege, a term some people are impatient with. They don’t see themselves as privileged. They also don’t think to ask how a black person might see them.

The movie quickly surveys several movies with themes of black vs white. One is the movie in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are handcuffed together after escaping from prison. At the end of the movie they’ve managed to get rid of the cuffs and are running to catch a train and ride in the box car. Poitier climbs onto the train, Curtis clutches at his hand, but can’t hold on, and falls down the hill. Poitier jumps back off the train. This, Baldwin says, is to reassure a white audience that black people still love them, in spite of the way whites have abused blacks. But, says Baldwin, the black audience had a completely different reaction: they said, “Fool, get back on the train!”

Do we want to know how the people we live with, who had a major role in building this country, but got very little out of it, actually feel, or do we prefer a fantasy? The answer to that question may go a long way to determining our future, as Baldwin says.



Everyone must have memories of Christmas. It can be thrilling for children, though not necessarily. I think adults tend to find it considerably less so. For them, Christmas can be a time of stress, not only in trying to make it wonderful for children, but in trying to enjoy it themselves. Expectations are so high that they can cause depression when circumstances don’t match up.

Cold is part of the season in North America and Europe. And in this country, so is the terrible emphasis on buying gifts for everyone in the family or friendly circle. Some obsess over paying as much as possible for gifts. Toy manufacturers enable by coming up with ever more elaborate and expensive toys. And a great many of them are plastic, to my chagrin (and anyone else with environmental concerns).

But who can blame children for being interested in toys? Complicated and environmentally destructive toys can be excluded, if parents are strong-minded enough, though. A toy doesn’t have to be complex to be fascinating.

I had a plastic submarine in which we put baking powder (or maybe soda). That made it submerge and come back up. Pretty neat for a child.

Another was a rocket in which I put water and pumped the pressure up so it would fly. It wasn’t too well constructed, so I had to keep making adjustments to make it fly, before it just wouldn’t anymore.

These were pretty simple toys, not even requiring batteries, unlike many today. A lot cheaper too, I imagine.

Part of Christmas was either driving to my uncle’s, where we would have turkey with all the fixings. After dinner we might play games or watch TV (my uncle’s family had TV; we didn’t). After my grandmother moved in with us my uncle’s family usually came to our house, and after dinner she would play Messiah choruses on the piano, and we would sing. That was my first exposure to both the Messiah and choral singing, and I’ve enjoyed both since.

As an adult I learned to care less about Christmas, during which I’ve often worked. When you work in a nursing home the patients still need care no matter what day it is, and holidays often pay better, something important if you have a family to support. I’ve been more interested in getting good gifts for others than receiving gifts myself. I can buy gifts for myself; I don’t need others (who often aren’t that aware of my tastes) to do it for me.

This year the best gift I received wasn’t a surprise: my wife got me a book entitled The Silk Roads, which I haven’t yet started, but which promises to be very interesting. Like probably many other Americans I know less about Asian history than European, and the Silk Road(s) takes in a lot of it. I don’t know how early that trade began, but at least as early as the Roman Empire.

Otherwise, my attention was on getting gifts for my grandchildren. I was lucky this year. My wife and I happened to be shopping for something for her when I found gifts in the store I thought my grandchildren would like. They seemed to when they got them. We’ll see if that lasts.

Others seemed to like what I got them too, even if they weren’t totally enthusiastic.

The other things I enjoyed about the day itself were the dinner, which was delicious. I overate to my heart’s content: turkey, dressing, gravy, broiled (I think) potatoes, brussels sprouts, and cranberry sauce. I forgot to fix cranberry relish that we could have taken out of town with us, unfortunately, so I’ll have to do it next year (I’m working over the weekend, so won’t make the effort to do it then).

I did let the holiday go by without playing the old Trapp Family Christmas album we grew up on with additions on the other side of the tape: Corelli’s Christmas Concerto (an obvious one), a Mozart oboe quartet, and a Vivaldi concerto for two trumpets, which I’ve associated with Christmas a long time. I particularly like the Trapp Family album because it has almost none of the overplayed and sung Christmas carols I got tired of even before I became an adult. The Trapp Family sang Latin, French, Spanish, and German songs (at least!) that I only get to hear because of that album, and once a year at most. I feel lucky to be in a choir where most of the Christmas songs were unfamiliar, and really nice, too. Makes singing fun.

I had also hoped to attend a Messiah sing-along, but it happened to be the night before we were headed out of town, so it didn’t seem like a good idea. Maybe next year. I began by following my uncle in singing the Hallelujah Chorus, then later sang in each of the other choruses (I’m pretty sure). I don’t know any other oratorios, but the Messiah stands out because it’s not only exhilarating, but most of it is pretty easy to sing. By the time Handel wrote it he had long experience in writing opera. When opera went out of style he turned to oratorios, writing thirteen of them, but the Messiah was the first, and remains the best known.

Now we get to the dull uncomfortable part of winter. I’ve never cared much for cold, and don’t feel particularly more tolerant as I age. I just hope for no problems at home or with cars. I want to start riding my bicycle earlier next year.

Robert Anton Wilson’s Journey to Expanded Consciousness


Robert Anton Wilson is a philosopher of sorts whose acquaintance I first made some forty years ago with the Illuminatus trilogy. Recently rereading it for the first time in decades, I found it wasn’t as compelling as back then, so I went on to his memoir, Cosmic Trigger, which was.

In that book he tells how he grew up in an Irish Roman Catholic home, jettisoning his Catholicism when it conflicted with his sex drive, and reached adulthood interested in lots of things. For one thing, he tried joining a lot of different groups (Ayn Rand and Trotskyite groups, for instance) which made him realize that there were a lot of different ways to see the world, and that different groups have different things they accept and reject. This means that virtually no one sees the world as it actually is: there’s always something being rejected or ignored which provides a different perspective on things. Wilson called these tunnel realities.

And humans tend to dislike different perspectives. Christianity in particular has dictated what people must and must not believe. A lot of people and organizations have imitated them. We’ve become very aware that people give us propaganda instead of truth, and resent it, even if we’re not good at telling the difference.

Wilson got caught up in the psychedelic experience of the early sixties before it became well-publicized. He took peyote first, then LSD when it became available. On one of his peyote trips he observed a green-skinned humanoid figure dancing. This was before Carlos Casteneda began publishing his books, when the green-skinned figure would become known as Mescalito, the spirit of the peyote. As the sixties progressed he met Timothy Leary to interview him, and they realized they had a lot of interests in common. Leary suggested he investigate Aleister Crowley, and Wilson did so, with increasing interest.

Crowley practiced magick (the spelling to distinguish it from Harry Houdini sleight of hand), and found it a rich source of unusual perspectives. Wilson had heard Crowley was a junkie, but also that he had climbed higher on Chogo Ri (a mountain in the Himalayas) than anyone else, which seemed unusual for a junkie. He began reading Crowley’s books, many of which suggest exercises to expand consciousness. Wilson began practicing a number of these, sometimes in conjunction with LSD or other psychedelics, sometimes without.

One such was to go a week without using the word “I” and punishing himself (Wilson bit his finger) whenever he slipped and said it. He found his state of mind changed pretty dramatically, and began to see his ego as an inconvenience.

Another practice was to invoke various gods or goddesses of the pagan past. He would decorate with colors and symbols associated with each, pray to them, and recite various invocations that Crowley had written. He found that these practices began changing his worldview too. Once he began getting results, he would start invoking a different god or goddess.

Wilson had also met William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch most famously), who told him about strangeness associated with the number 23. Burroughs had discovered it when talking to an ferry boat sailor named Captain Clark, who told him he had sailed the ferry 23 years without an accident. That day Burroughs heard that Clark’s ferry had sunk, killing all aboard. Then he heard about an airplane crash, piloted by another Captain Clark. It was flight number 23. Wilson began looking for 23s, and began finding them synchronistically. Synchronicity is a pattern which doesn’t seem to have a cause, but appears too meaningful to be merely coincidence. The more Wilson looked for 23s, the more he found, and the more meaningful they were. He records numerous examples, one being that sperm and egg each contribute 23 chromosomes to what becomes a human fetus. There are many more.

He was also interested in UFOs, and their significance. Such incidents are often witnessed by lots of people, though not all agree on what they see. The incidents seem to contradict the laws of nature, and it’s uncertain what their cause is. They’re similar to reported incidents prior to the twentieth century which people used to attribute to encounters with angels, or with fairies. They can be pretty bizarre. My favorite was reported by a man living in Wisconsin, who said a UFO landed in his yard, an alien got out and handed him some pancakes. That seems a nice thing to do, but what was the significance? The pancakes, incidentally, turned out to be ordinary pancakes when analyzed. Wilson thinks such an incident (and many others) indicate that when we’re confronted with something completely unfamiliar, like a technology well in advance of our own, our consciousness tries to change it into familiar terms, however senseless (or hilarious) those terms turn out to be.

Besides the magickal practices and psychedelic drugs,  Wilson had been reading as many of Crowley’s books as he could obtain, and found that Crowley had been practicing Tantra, or sexual magick, which consisted of various ways to postpone orgasm which would make it extremely powerful and psychedelic. In the early 1970s in the midst of these practices Wilson began to believe he was receiving messages from the area of the star Sirius.

Sirius is the brightest star in our sky, and has a very interesting history. When he began to research it, Wilson found that the Dogon tribe in Africa had told people (Including Robert Temple, who wrote a book about it) a lot of information about Sirius no one would have expected them to know, including that it was a double star, and that the second star (invisible until the twentieth century to astronomers until they had telescopes powerful enough to see) was much smaller than the primary, which is the one easily visible. Sirius, known as the Dog Star, contributes heat to the “dog days” of summer, and would contribute much more if the universe weren’t expanding, and Sirius receding from us. When asked how they had found out these things, the Dogon said aliens from Sirius had told them.

When Robert Temple researched further he began to believe there had been contact with aliens in the Middle East about 4500 years ago, and that knowledge of this had traveled across Africa to the Dogon. If such a thing happened, and if his timeline was correct is difficult to say. Egypt already had a great deal of interest in Sirius well before 2500 BC. They identified it with the goddess Isis, and in building the Great Pyramid, constructed a shaft to the south through which they could observe the star. When Wilson looked into this further he found that a LOT of people claimed to have received messages from Sirius, including Crowley.

George Gurdjieff seems to have known about this too. When writing his most important book he realized that he had made some passages more plain than he intended, and said he needed to bury the dog deeper. When asked if he didn’t mean the bone, he said, No, the dog, and that the dog was Sirius. Sirius is also said to be the star portrayed on the card by that name in the Tarot deck. Some say the Tarot was put together by Sufis, and Sufis provided at least some of Gurdjieff’s education in the occult.

By the time all this was happening, Wilson had quit his job at Playboy, and was trying to earn his living by writing. He was having some difficulty. He and Robert Shea, who had also worked at Playboy, had written the Illuminatus trilogy, satirizing many conspiracy theories they came across while working at Playboy. The Illuminati were composed of people from the Freemasons who had achieved higher consciousness, but their organization located in Bavaria was outlawed in the 18th century. Some saw them as heroes, many saw them as villains, and the more the two authors researched the group the more probable it seemed that they had a long ancestry which may have extended back to ancient Egypt or even further. Learning about them fit well with Wilson’s desire to expand his own consciousness.

He and Shea had finished writing the novel, but were having trouble getting it published, so Wilson was poor. He and his family were living in San Francisco with poor people, since they couldn’t afford a great place to live. He was doing a Sufi exercise to open his heart, and was often horrified at things he saw poor people have to go through.

Such things touched his own family too. His youngest daughter, who was aware of his occult interests, and shared them, got beaten up by a gang of black kids, but understood that if she held a grudge against them, it would only continue the negative energy–so she forgave them, and never showed any fear or dislike of anyone black. Wilson was amazed that a girl in her early teens could be so wise.

By this time Timothy Leary had been busted for possession of pot and imprisoned. He managed to escape and spent some time overseas before being kidnapped in Afghanistan and brought back to the USA. Just why the authorities were so hysterical about the threat his advocacy of LSD posed may be clearer when one realizes that his interest in the drug was because of its ability to change what he called “imprints”, impressions that cause the mind to see things in certain ways. Governments prefer that people see things in ways they prescribe. Anything that allows them to see independently is threatening. Leary had incautiously advertised his intentions, trying (as Wilson sees it) to reserve the use of LSD to competent professionals who could use it as a tool to safely help people. That he publicized it so effectively helped to spread its use, and many used it less than safely. Of course the main effect of government prohibition was to drive LSD into the black market and prevent scientists from studying it. But before LSD became illegal Leary had used it in a project with prisoners that was very successful in preventing recidivism. With less public hysteria, and with good training, mental health could have been greatly improved.

When Leary was released from prison he no longer wanted to talk about drugs, but about immortality and space travel. He had theorized a model of various higher “circuits” that LSD, other drugs, and various practices can induce to begin operating in human beings. Four of these he said were the ones we use in our ordinary life on earth. There are, he said, four others which are rarely experienced, and which are for use in outer space. He wanted to become immortal and journey in a starship which need not go faster than light if its passengers were immortal. He expected science to discover a method (or methods) to attain immortality quickly (this was in the mid-1970s). This was where I began to part company with the ideas in the book.

For one thing, immortality would cause immense problems if people in general stopped dying. Nature, as experienced on this planet, is organized around death: each generation has to make way for the next. All living organisms reproduce, therefore all must die. Their deaths help provide, through decomposition, the food that will nourish all the organisms that support life on the whole planet, which is already overpopulated with humans. An order of magnitude more would even more rapidly deplete the natural resources which could provide for them. And not enough space ships could be built–at least until we can easily mine the asteroids or moon– to take more than a small percentage to other star systems. There’s also a possibility that the bulk of the human race has responsibilities here.

Leary and Wilson seem to have been confident that human science would rather quickly find a way to stop death and keep humans healthy and happy for hundreds, thousands, even billions of years. That was forty years ago. Why haven’t we heard anything about it since?

One reason is that immortality is something the powerful wouldn’t want ordinary people to have. If a method of immortality was discovered, powerful people would want to keep it for themselves. If such a thing has been discovered, I suggest that is exactly what has happened. Immortality would be a powerful tool to obtain even more power.

That section of the book seems almost insanely optimistic, reminding me of something Wilson says he learned about Crowley from someone who knew him well. Crowley, his acquaintance said, often believed that the illumination he had attained was shared by many of the people he met, causing him to trust wrong people. Israel Regardie, a biographer of Crowley, who has worked as his secretary in the 1920s stated that Crowley had unresolved issues which caused him to have blind spots. He was, in some respects, wiser than many, but he wasn’t perfectly wise. Regardie’s autobiography stops before 1914, by which time he had had and assimilated most of the visions which had so deepened his perceptions. He had written most of the works for which he is known, and had also lost all his money. He lived more than thirty more years, but Regardie didn’t find his later life inspiring.

Another example of the optimism Wilson shows is his view of the acceleration of knowledge. Human knowledge took a long time to increase in the past, especially knowledge shared with the largest part of humanity. With the beginning of science about 500 years ago, knowledge has been piling up at an ever increasing rate. Some were predicting forty years ago that by this time the human race would be entirely transformed, with many obstacles passed very quickly. This has obviously not happened. The human race remains stuck in sorrow and suffering.

But much of the book remains exciting, though I can’t agree with all of it. It’s a sort of detective novel in which the author tries to understand more and more of how the world operates, and goes further and deeper than usual understandings. That can be pretty thrilling.

Wilson ends the book by telling how his daughter was beaten to death by an unhappy man who couldn’t have understood what he was doing, and how he resisted allowing that to crush him. As terribly as he suffered from that, he found that many people loved him and his family, and wanted to help in any way they could. One psychologist made a point of visiting a couple of times a week to talk if anyone needed him. Wilson later called such kindness bewildering, and was grateful and amazed it should exist. I don’t know if one should see such a crushing death as some kind of punishment for Wilson or anyone else in his family, but if he had done wrong, he was certainly punished.

He ends the book by asking Timothy Leary what he did when he was overwhelmed by negativity. Leary replied, “Come back with all the positive energy you can.” This, said Wilson, was how he learned the final secret of the Illuminati.


Pioneer Girl


Many people are familiar with the title, Little House on the Prairie, because it was a successful TV show about forty years ago. But before that it was the title of a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder, part of a series of novels about her childhood. It was a series my mother discovered not long after they were published in the 1930s and early 1940s, and she read them to us when we were children.

The action in the novels takes place in the 1870s, beginning with some of Wilder’s early memories. She was born in 1867 to a couple, Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner Ingalls, whose parents had grown up in New York state and New England respectively, who had moved to Wisconsin, where Charles and Caroline met and married.

The wave of white settlers had spilled across the country west of the Mississippi about 25-30 years earlier, at first to the amusement, then to the alarm of the Indians. This led to wars which eventually ended in about  the 1890s. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t see any of that violence, but did see Indians.

Pioneer Girl begins with the family in what is now Kansas, living illegally on an Indian reservation, where the Indians weren’t doing too well. It was shortly after the Civil War, and payments to the Indians had been suspended during it, so they were in danger of starvation. Wilder’s mother and father gave the Indians anything they asked for out of fear for what they might do. They didn’t stay in Kansas long, traveling back to Wisconsin to live near family before heading west again.

That’s one of the places Pioneer Girl differs from the eventual series of novels: it doesn’t tell about the family’s time in Kansas, perhaps because Wilder didn’t want to admit that her father was knowingly doing something illegal, the book’s editor suggests. In later novels Wilder changes the timeline and some of the characters from how they’re portrayed in the earlier book. She also doesn’t tell some of the anecdotes of Pioneer Girl because the novels are aimed at children. Alcoholic and sexual escapades are omitted.

From Wisconsin they head west into southwestern Minnesota, where they run into a plague of grasshoppers that lasts several years. From there they head west into what is now North Dakota, where Laura’s father gets work with a railroad and also stakes a claim on land nearby what became the town of DeSmet, where he could farm. This is where Wilder spent her adolescent years before getting married.

The editor of Pioneer Girl comments that Wilder looked up to her father more than her mother, and her father was a hard-working and resourceful man. I doubt that her mother worked any less hard, though, and must also have been resourceful to be a pioneer wife.

One incident I remember being impressed with from the books is Laura’s father building them a house using pegs which he whittled to hold the structure together, since he didn’t have any nails. He not only farmed, but worked for the railroad, was on the board overseeing a church, served as a judge, and was a carpenter. He also liked to play his violin, and had a fairly extensive repertoire.

Laura knew they had to work as a team, and not only helped her mother, but contributed to the family through outside jobs sewing and teaching in nearby schools, beginning when she was fourteen or fifteen. She contributed money to buy an organ her sister Mary, who had attended a school for the blind, could play after she returned home. It’s uncertain what caused Mary’s blindness, though doctors now believe it may have been meningitis, encephalitis, or some combination. She probably couldn’t have gotten much better care in a big city in that day before antibiotics, and x-rays, but it points up how many problems there were even when civilization wasn’t extremely far away.

In the earlier books the family seems isolated, though that wasn’t entirely true. Wilder depicted them that way to emphasize how much they had to depend on themselves, but there were also other people to whom they could go for help. This was particularly acute during the winter of 1880-1881, the Hard or Long Winter.

Snow fell early and often that fall, so much of it that the town was eventually cut off, even though the railroad ran through it. The snow was too deep, and the weather too cold for the railroad to operate. Much livestock froze to death, and people were reduced to eating the seeds saved to grow crops the next season. Almanzo Wilder undertook to find a farmer a dozen or so miles away who still had some grain, a very risky business since he could have gotten caught in a blizzard and lost. But he managed to get back to the town with the grain.

Fuel was another problem. The weather was bitterly cold with high winds, and there was little wood on the prairie. Laura’s father began twisting hay together to make a sort of stick which still burned fast, but helps keep people warm.

With blizzards coming every two to three days people had to be careful about going outside. The storms were so powerful people often couldn’t see, and could get lost between house and barn, as well as in town. Teachers watched for blizzards and sent the children home as soon as they see them coming.

Her later novels depict their interactions with people in the town. They had an extensive social life, with Fourth of July celebrations, social occasions organized by the church, and going riding with Almanzo Wilder, whom she eventually married, first in a sleigh, then a buggy. He has strong fast horses whom he couldn’t trust to stay still in a crowd, so the two of them took long rides of 40-60 miles together in the summer. Such long rides were unsafe in the winter, when it was possible to freeze to death.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s period may have seen the most dramatic changes ever in American life. She lived to be about 90, dying in 1957. Her first glimpse of high technology was a train, as a little girl. But she saw the advent of cars, movies, and airplanes, as well as the ascendance of America in the world. She may even have been aware of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. When writing the series that made her famous, she insisted to her daughter (herself an author and editor) that her material had to be treated in its historical context. It was a very specific time, and very unlike much of the twentieth century.

She clearly had good memories of her childhood and adolescence, but didn’t publish any more novels after her marriage to Almanzo. She wrote a further novel, The First Four Years, but didn’t publish it, perhaps because of many hardships in that period which would have detracted from the optimism of the rest of the series. She and Almanzo had a son who died as a young child, they owed money they were unable to repay until selling their farm and moving to Missouri, and Almanzo had bad complications from diphtheria, leaving him temporarily paralyzed, though his paralysis stopped after they moved to Florida. The couple descended into debt and never became financially stable until Wilder’s novels became popular.

But, as the editor of Pioneer Girl says, her novels became classics of children’s literature. She ranks Wilder with Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, and E.B. White as children’s authors. Our family certainly enjoyed reading them, and so did enough others to generate a TV show which, as you might imagine, wasn’t very true to the books.

It’s hard for us to imagine, I think, just what life was like as pioneers on the edge of the western advance of white settlers. The editor of Pioneer Girl makes clear that civilization wasn’t too far away: railroads were built (and Wilder’s father worked for one), and brought important supplies to the settlers, including seeds to make a crop after the Hard Winter. Had they been totally isolated, they might have been in danger of starvation. They were not, but didn’t have the technology (in particular) we take for granted now. We see Wilder and her world at the very beginning of the transition from the 19th century way of life to that of the 20th century. We never really learn what Wilder thought of all those changes, but the picture painted by the editor suggests that she took the changes for granted.

Her life overlapped mine. There have been large changes since I was born, but nothing as immense as happened in Wilder’s lifetime. She reminds us where our country came from.



Hillbilly Elegy


I was interested when I first heard of JD Vance, whose memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, records how he grew up. He is writing specifically about the Appalachian culture, most of it Scots/Irish, which has lived in the Appalachian mountains for two hundred years and migrated into the midwest in search of economic opportunity. It comprises a lot of people, but they generally feel like outsiders. Their culture is different from the more urban population of the midwest, and while some have been quite successful, many have not.
Early in the book Vance tells the story of a young man who gets a job because his girlfriend is pregnant. The employer wants to help, so he gives the girlfriend a job too–but regrets it. She calls in a couple of times a week and takes long breaks when she does come to work. He isn’t much better. Not as many call-ins, but frequent ones, and he takes long breaks too. Eventually, both get fired, and the young man asks how the employer could do that to him, since his girlfriend is pregnant. He has no idea he’s done anything wrong.
It’s a story that prompts a moralistic response: kids today aren’t responsible, they’re lazy, etc. That much is true, but there’s more to the story. Why AREN’T young people more responsible? Why are they lazy? Personally, I try to resist those interpretations, but to do that I need to understand what’s going on. That story is a lot of the reason Vance wrote this book.
His ancestors had lived in eastern Kentucky a long time. One of his relatives committed the murder that set off the Hatfield/McCoy feud, for instance. His own story starts with his grandparents, who decided rather suddenly to move to Ohio from Kentucky. His grandmother was fourteen at the time, and pregnant, and unmarried, which meant his grandmother’s brothers were likely to come after his grandfather (who eventually did marry the grandmother). They arrived first in Dayton, then moved to Middletown, about midway between Dayton and Cincinnati, where Vance’s grandfather got a job at an Armco factory making steel. He was able to earn enough to support his family, but there’s evidence that all was not well. Vance’s grandmother had a baby who lived six days, then had eight miscarriages in the first decade or so. Miscarriages are often caused by stress, and the grandmother had been used to being surrounded by family. In Ohio they felt isolated until they gradually began to make friends. That’s one difference between Appalachian culture and midwestern culture: the midwest has generally nuclear families who value privacy. Appalachian people are different. Appalachian people are most comfortable with family all around. And Vance’s grandfather was an alcoholic. That meant lots of fights and lots of stress.
Fights weren’t unusual in Appalachian culture. Vance says he heard them around his neighborhood all the time. They were loud and dramatic, and stressful. Two of his grandparents’ three children adjusted well to their surroundings and became successful adults. Vance’s mother was less successful.
She was a smart person, but gave birth shortly after graduating from high school. She took a break from school, but did eventually go on to get an associate degree in nursing, so she wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. But her private life was less so. She couldn’t manage to get into a stable relationship with a man, divorcing and remarrying, or acquiring a new boyfriend every few months. Vance says he thinks she was the most sensitive of the three siblings, and thus the most vulnerable. He also says that the thing he hated most about his childhood was instability: saying goodbye to one husband or boyfriend whom he might have liked, but his mother didn’t, then welcoming another into their lives, and eventually realizing that this one wouldn’t last either. With the relationship instability came frequent moves to different towns or different houses. He eventually just wanted to stay in one place with the same people. That eventually came about because his mother became addicted, first to alcohol, then to narcotics, which she stole from work. She eventually went into rehab, and Vance lived with his grandmother.
His grandmother, who hadn’t had the chance for education herself, definitely wanted it for him. She pushed him to do his schoolwork well, and the stability of knowing where he would be living for the foreseeable future encouraged him. Earlier, his mother had encouraged him to read (getting him a library card, and making sure there were always children’s books around), and his grandfather (who had died by the time he entered high school), had worked with him on arithmetic and then mathematics on a higher level. Vance had been discouraged when someone in his school brought up multiplication, and he didn’t know what it was. His grandfather showed him, and worked with him, giving him more confidence.
There’s a contrast between his family and other families he knew when growing up. His family was relatively successful, though poor. His uncle and aunt were both more successful than his mother, and even his mother had learned useful skills by which she could earn a living. His grandparents weren’t sophisticated, but they weren’t stupid either. But they all were affected by the climate of pessimism in their culture exemplified by the young man who lost the job with which he could have supported his girlfriend and their child.
That pessimism is characterized by a lack of belief one could control one’s life, and that there was any use striving. He says many of his friends began smoking marijuana in high school, and his grandmother wouldn’t let him see them, telling him if she caught him with any of them, she’d run them over with her car. Since family lore had her being interrupted when trying to kill a man who had tried to steal the family cow in Kentucky, he believed her. He had tried alcohol and marijuana, but then left them alone–because he was happy, he says. As his life became more stable, his grades improved, and he began thinking about college.
College was really unknown territory. No one in his family had gone to anything but community college. He decided he wanted to go to Ohio State, and was accepted there, but felt intimidated. He didn’t want to fail because of lack of discipline. One of his cousins told him he should consider joining the Marines, and suggested he talk to a recruiter. The recruiter told him he wouldn’t make much money, but would learn about leadership, and  that discipline was the primary thing being a Marine would give him. That turned out to be true.
Becoming a Marine put him in better physical shape, and taught him about a lot of things. He says the Marines assumed their recruits didn’t know how to do ANYTHING, and so made sure they were taught how. So they taught Vance to balance a checkbook, persuaded him that buying a BMW when making about $1000 a month wasn’t realistic, then made sure he wasn’t ripped off when he bought a more appropriate car. When he left the service he had become an outsider of a different sort: he was optimistic against a pessimistic cultural background. He believed he could work hard enough to attend to his studies and earn a living at the same time. He wasn’t totally realistic about that, and got very sick for awhile, then adjusted and paid more attention to living in a healthy way. In his last year of school he decided he wanted to go to law school, and was accepted at Yale Law School, arguably one of the best schools in the country. He hadn’t thought he could afford to go, but was told they had assistance for qualifying students, and did qualify. While in school he met his future wife and her family, and got a good job as he left the school.
He spent a lot of time trying to understand himself, his family, and his culture. When he was about fifteen he read The Truly Disadvantaged, by William Julius Wilson, who talked about migrant cultures that were vibrant but fragile. Such a culture could succeed in a place previously foreign, but if conditions changed there, they might be at worse risk than if they’d stayed in a more familiar place. He felt this was the first time he’d read a description of his own way of life. Ironically, Wilson was writing about black communities, not white ones. That’s an interesting point to reflect on.
Both black and white communities are composed of outsiders in the broader culture, whom other cultural groups have felt they had a right to look down on. One of the reasons for segregation was to prevent these two cultures from becoming allies, a point Vance doesn’t address in his book. But this, as he has said in other places, is one reason people from Appalachian culture are likely to support Donald Trump. Trump knows how to talk to people who have been looked down on by elites. In an interview, Vance said that he couldn’t support Trump himself, but understood why many of his family would, though they didn’t necessarily believe he’d do anything for them. Poor whites have had hard times for quite awhile, as much as poor blacks. They’re tired of promises that never get fulfilled. They, like other less than powerful communities in this country,  aren’t taken seriously. When Vance told his father he’d been accepted at Yale Law School, his father asked if he’d pretended to be black or Latino. When more minorities get accepted in such schools, it’s rarely whites from a wealthy background who are displaced, it’s poor whites.
Vance began running into cultural phenomena outside his experience, first in the Marines (he served in Iraq, but didn’t see combat), and then in college and law school. In all these places he lived with ethnicities he was unused to and cultural customs he hadn’t encountered before. He discovered there were opportunities he hadn’t been aware of that people would tell him about when he asked. He also discovered that his girlfriend (later to become his wife) and her family were very different from the people he was used to.
When he and his girlfriend argued he resorted to calling her names and saying terrible things to her, just like the arguments he’d witnessed and participated in with his family. Those arguments had been fight or flight ones: so much rode on them he was ready to run if he couldn’t get his way. His girlfriend insisted he talk to her and tell her what was wrong. When he visited her family he found they were NICER to each other than his family. They didn’t say terrible things about each other behind each other’s backs, and didn’t act as if they said nasty things in private either. In the book he says he hasn’t entirely learned the other way of talking to his (now) wife, but is working on it. He thinks there’s a terrible insecurity in himself (now less acute), his family, and his culture which prevents them from succeeding as they otherwise could.

He talks about problems experienced by his culture: because of family instability many people experience trauma, especially as children. Abuse of one sort or another, or simply witnessing family fights can be things that affect children for many years. But, he emphasizes, having a caring adult in the picture can make a big difference.
Maybe this somewhat explains some of why working class people in general are less successful: they talk about hard work, and believe they’re practicing it, but have been conditioned not to look objectively at their problems. A family and cultural ethos is never to expose problems to outsiders–understandable, but counter-productive if outsiders could help. An unwillingness to confront problems and desire to escape made his mother vulnerable to addiction. And she’s hardly alone in that population. Heroin is no longer solely urban; it’s become rural too, along with prescription drugs and alcohol, the comforters for lives hard to understand and stressful. With those problems (as well as lack of understanding how to conduct relationships) come broken families with children who don’t learn enough to be able to succeed. If Vance’s family was better than average, and he still didn’t know how to balance a checkbook or buy a car, what must other Appalachian (and other poor families) be like? He quotes a teacher as saying that many of the children they try to serve have been brought up to be wolves. They don’t fit in public schools. Where will they fit?
He also thinks of all the people who have helped him, and says that if any had failed to, he wouldn’t have succeeded. His grandparents were most important, but his sister, his cousins, uncles, and aunts all helped him. What happens to children who don’t have help?
The narrative that people are lazy isn’t untrue, but is hardly the whole story. How can such people be helped if they don’t know to apply themselves because their families are too chaotic to teach them? If they learn to apply themselves, how can they learn WHERE to apply themselves, and get into position to succeed? As Vance says, public policy, while important, can’t solve all these problems. Much of the solution belongs to individuals willing to help one person at a time.
And there’s little ethos in his community to analyze problems and devote one’s self to solving them. Some do, and earn successful lives, but struggle to do so. There are fewer easily obtainable jobs for unskilled people to support themselves and their families, many reject school (whether because their families are too chaotic to allow them peace in which to study, simple distaste, or lack of realistic alternatives to college), which closes possibilities for opportunities later. It’s easy for those of us who grew up in secure families to just dismiss such people.

Vance mentions an HBO special about Appalachian people in which a family patriarch talked about what kinds of work was appropriate for men, and what for women. It was unclear just what was appropriate for men, since he himself had never had a paying job. His son said it was their mother who had ensured they would survive.

On the other hand, Appalachian families enter into anxiety about Christmas, planning to spend immense amounts of money on presents, and often going deep into debt to do so. Vance was surprised to find that his wife’s family wasn’t concerned about spending large amounts of money on presents.

He concludes by saying that his culture won’t solve its problems by blaming elites represented by presidents or faceless corporations, but by individuals thinking about what they can do to improve things. Elites are part of the equation in the problems of poor people, but they can’t, by themselves, save anyone.  Better public policy could help, but is not enough alone. Vance says that wealthy people and businesses often give presents at Christmas, a pleasant thing to do which won’t help substantially. I think alcohol and heroin usually indicate that people feel hopeless. That may not be objectively true, but people often need help to be able to see it. And that takes much time and effort. That help probably comes best from within the culture, though people outside it may be able to help too. The problems just get more difficult when the economy is bad and there are fewer jobs for unskilled people, especially if they’re too discouraged to make much effort. The problems will continue for a lot of people for a long time, and a lot of communities. Unfortunately, many will probably be lost.

Vance emphasizes that he writes his memoir not because he thinks he’s accomplished anything fabulous, but because he could so easily have been lost. His message isn’t ideological. On one hand, he says that people in his community in particular (but the message includes others) need to make better choices. On the other, that people (emphatically including him) who succeed owe a lot to others, and thus need to repay them. He tries to help his mother, who continues to struggle with addiction, as well as young people, some of whom may already be lost. He says his culture doesn’t turn its back on family because they don’t love each other, but because some family members can cause craziness. If they don’t see people they love, it’s in order to survive. It would be easy to write off people we don’t identify with with horrifying problems, but few of us survived without any help at all. Vance remembers where he came from, and wants others to join him.

Stephen Calt and Skip James


As of some twenty years ago, Stephen Calt could still appreciate some of the great recorded performances of blues from the 1920s and 30s. He had been a blues fanatic as a teenager and young man, but had become disillusioned with the genre, the older blues musicians he’d met, and the young white blues enthusiasts who took advantage of them.
The blues he traces back to a hymn by Charles Wesley (founder of the Methodist church), Roll Jordan. “The building block of the blues is the four-bar phrase divided into two unbalanced parts: a ten-beat vocal phrase, followed by a six-beat instrumental phrase. It is this unvarying phrase, repeated three times, that makes for a twelve-bar blues, and is the unique insignia of the form, removing it from the realm of spirituals or any other song form.”
Calt goes on to say that, although it’s surprising that one song should inspire a whole genre, neither white nor black had much tradition to draw on in the early 19th century. The Star-Spangled Banner, he says, was based on a German drinking song.
There was another difference between spirituals and blues. Spirituals took an obligatory happy attitude. Blues did not, probably partly to differentiate them from spirituals, partly because the singers were nomadic, and frequently in need of help. Calt suggests that the attraction of the blues was that they depicted life as it was, which spirituals did not. Lyrics by the traveling singers would often be about how miserable they were to attract handouts. Blues lyrics in general were usually not very original; they existed as a sort of pattern from which could be borrowed any line that would fit a particular song. Musicians borrowed from each other constantly, instrumentally and lyrically.
Many of these musicians, as shown by surviving recordings, were barely competent, but there were a few musicians who transcended their genre, at least occasionally. Charlie Patton and Skip James, both of who Calt has written about, were two of these.
Calt met James at the Newport Folk Festival of 1964. Calt was a young white blues fanatic. James had recently been discovered in Mississippi, and was to perform in the festival, along with two other recent rediscoveries. James took a liking to Calt, and Calt’s book, besides piecing together James’ life, tells about their friendship.
James liked to monopolize his conversations with Calt, talking about anything that passed through his mind, mostly his attitude towards life. He didn’t care for discussions, and said little about what interested Calt: how he made his music, and what other musicians he had met. Calt does record that he and Muddy Waters seemed to recognize each other at Newport, and that Waters didn’t seem pleased.
James had little interest in, or respect for, other musicians, even when they influenced him, like Little Brother Montgomery, perhaps the best blues pianist of the time. James was unusual in playing both piano and guitar at a high level.
He had recorded a number of songs in 1931, which had sold very little, as it was during the Depression. Among these are some of the greatest recorded performances of the era: Devil Got My Woman, 22-20, I’m So Glad, and Special Rider. Ironically, he quit trying to musically improve not long after that.
His father had left him and his mother when he was very young, and had become a minister. His father had some musical talent, writing and singing songs, and James happened to meet him shortly after his recording sessions. He played some songs for his father, perhaps hoping to impress him. His father’s response was to suggest he give up blues and come to Dallas, Texas to become a minister. After some thought, James decided to do so, not so much because he had been converted as because he thought it would be a comfortable place to sit out the Depression. He did eventually become ordained, but never had a career as a minister. He also never played music on the level he had again, perhaps because his father intimidated him as virtually no one else had. He may also have been deterred by the black fundamentalist belief that the blues was devil music, and that he’d be punished after death for having played it.
This view by the black community was probably because blues musicians in general were bad role models; usually alcoholics and misogynists, if not outright criminals. James fit this category comfortably.
Part of the blues lifestyle was pimping. Musicians generally had women who would give them food, money, and clothes, often managing this by becoming prostitutes, though sometimes by working on a plantation. James never depended exclusively on music for his income, but supplemented manual labor with pimping sometimes and bootlegging others, usually protected by a plantation owner.
Danger was another part of the blues lifestyle: playing at plantation “frolics” or jukehouses musicians often attracted women, whose boyfriends or husbands could get displeased. Few would care if a blues musicians turned up dead because of that. James early began carrying a gun, and was virtually never without one. He often told Calt how ready he was to use one, and how often he had in the past. He was shy on details, but left a strong impression that some of his encounters had left people dead or severely injured. Calt also quotes a lyric from one song, in which James sings that if he goes to Louisiana, he’ll be hanged for sure.
After James died, in 1969, Calt began putting things together from their lengthy conversations. James hadn’t recorded in the late 1920s, when he’d had a chance to, and when he might have sold a lot more records. James had said he hadn’t been ready to record, and that he’d been in the hospital. Calt began to wonder if he hadn’t been wanted for a serious crime, and reluctant to advertise his whereabouts. He also wondered how James had become so skillful on piano (he had never owned one), and wondered if he might have had access to one in prison.
James had traveled all over the Deep South, but denied ever visiting Louisiana, supposedly because it was too racist. But Calt remembered him mentioning having been in a Louisiana town. Had he done something in Louisiana for which the statute of limitations had not run out?
James generally approved of pimps and other types of criminals. Although he talked the fundamentalist rhetoric, he didn’t behave in a “Christian” way. He had little concern for anyone but himself. He couldn’t relate to the civil rights movement, seeing no use in voting. Though he was an angry man, he thoroughly accepted segregation in the South, merely looking for powerful white men to protect his bootlegging operations. He once remarked to Calt, “I don’t expect you to treat me like a white man.” After signing a contract with a well-established record company in the 1960s he decided that his wife wasn’t good enough, and took up with another woman whom he considered higher class. Ironically, he was less comfortable with her than his previous wife. His life in many ways was one in which he’d made himself miserable through poor choices.
James was in poor health and unable to make much of a living after being rediscovered. Part of the reason was because he was booked exclusively on the coffee house circuit, and didn’t know what to make of the white audience he played for. Calt thought he would have been better served to have performed for college audiences, where he could have had larger audiences and made more money.
But another reason he didn’t do well was, Calt speculates, because he was making a deal with God. He accepted the idea that blues was devil music, and didn’t want to be punished for playing it, though he did want to earn a living. So he didn’t REALLY play the blues which could be so compelling, which his audience might have appreciated even if they didn’t understand what they were hearing.
One of the greatest ironies of his life was that his music, which he’d essentially given up trying to improve on after his recording sessions seemed to be the only thing he had to be proud of. He may have made one or more women pregnant, but had never had a family, though he had married later in life. One of the few things that helped him financially was when the rock group Cream covered his song, I’m So Glad, which he had reworked from something very different. Cream’s version was very unlike his (though distinguished in its way), but James said, justly, that no one could play it like him. He had evidently spent much time working on it, and had been able to play it unbelievably fast when he recorded it. It was impressive, but a small thing to fasten one’s pride to.
Calt says he hadn’t understood blues when he first heard it and fell in love with it, only to discover later on that his love had been immature romanticism. He hadn’t understood that blues musicians were professionals, and lived squalid lives. His experience with James showed him just how insular the man who had approached genius in his music was. Further investigation showed him that few others of that time were much different.
The dominant impression one gets from the book is Calt’s disappointment. The music had seemed to promise him a great deal, and he expected more of his musical hero too. As of twenty or so years ago he could still be enthusiastic in analyzing what made James’s music so wonderful. But he was disappointed that so much of blues was crude and musically incompetent, and that Skip James was an anti-hero. I wonder if he ever found anything else in life to make him joyful as blues once had.

Bill Russell’s Memoir


Bill Russell was arguably the most successful athlete in history, at least in terms of wins. His high school, college, Olympic, and professional teams all won a lot and lost rarely. That, and his being a black man in a majority white culture who thought independently makes the perspective in his memoir, Second Wind an educational one.
Race has always been a big part of the history of this country. It shaped Russell, though he escaped the worst effects of it. How did he? One reason is his family. His paternal grandfather and parents were all smart and independent people. The other was because of his career as an athlete, one of the two areas (with music) in which African Americans have been relatively well accepted. The key word there is relatively, as his prominence also exposed him to racism.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that many white people are unconscious of racism, since it doesn’t directly affect them, but the whole syndrome seems curious. Why skin color (as well as religious beliefs, gender, and politics) should so influence people’s behavior is mysterious, not least because (at least as manifested in the Americas) it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. While xenophobia was part of the ancient world, racism as we now know it doesn’t seem to have been, nor was it attached to slavery (a fact of human existence for all the time we know of) before the last five hundred years.

Russell was born and spent his early childhood in Louisiana and was impressed with the racism of the Deep South. His paternal grandfather refused to be intimidated, even by the Ku Klux Klan. When warned they were going to visit him, he first got his family out of the way, then waited in his house. He heard a number of people drive up, then one tell him to come out. He said they’d have to come in after him. Someone fired a shot, and he started shooting his shotgun as fast as he could, then heard them drive away.
Russell says that during his childhood members of his community sometimes disappeared. Perhaps they simply left the area without telling anyone. Sometimes people speculated that white people had gotten them, though. His grandfather’s experience suggests there was reason to believe that whites had made some people simply disappear.

Two incidents made his parents decide to move from Louisiana to California. One was when a white policeman harangued Russell’s mother because she was wearing clothes he considered should have been reserved for a white woman. The other when his father stopped at a gas station to refuel. The attendant filled the car ahead of them, then chatted with the driver for a long time. Another car pulled in, and he served them before the Russells. Russell’s father went to drive away, and the attendant started cussing him out for it. His father went to the back of the car and came back with a tire iron. The attendant turned and ran. Russell and his older brother thought this was great. Their father said no, it WASN’T great. He had lost control of himself, could have killed the attendant, ruined his own life, and the lives of his family. Russell’s parents had already talked about moving to a different part of the country where their two sons could more easily obtain a higher education, so they moved to Oakland, California, and stayed there even after his mother died young, when he was twelve. He was affected by that, but not as much as one might think. His father exhorted them to responsibility, and took a job enabling him to be with Russell and his older brother every night.
As he became a teenager, Russell began thinking more about race. He read a book that said slaves were better off in America than in Africa, and felt attacked in an essential way. To balance that, he also read about Christophe, one of the leaders of the Haitian revolution. Christophe told British representatives that his army was more disciplined than theirs, and to prove it, told one of the companies of his army to march off the wall of his castle. The whole company did, and he said that had saved lives because the British decided not to fight them. Russell admits the man was a monster, but says he was fascinated because he’d never heard of a black man so dynamic.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the book is the section titled Magic, in which Russell tells how he embarked on the process that took him to the top of the basketball world.
It began in high school, when he was 16 years old. He was walking down a hall and suddenly the thought came to him that he was all right, and everything was all right. He didn’t know where it came from, but it felt powerful. Until then he had felt intimidated by everyone, and everyone seemed to believe there was something wrong with him. Unfortunately for him, he agreed with them. This revelation changed his attitude. He now believed that people who picked on him did so because there was something wrong with THEM, and began to feel comfortable defending himself. He saw the feeling changing his life as magical, but was uncomfortable allowing magic to dominate his world, believing it would ultimately narrow his world instead of widening it. The next place that he found magical was basketball.
He had played basketball through high school, but not well. The last game he played for his team before graduating in January he scored 14 points, more than he ever had before. A scout happened to be in the stands, saw him, and recommended him for an All Star team organized specifically for boys who graduated that time of the year which traveled up the west coast into Canada and back, playing games almost every day. Immersed in basketball, Russell began to see how to make offensive and rebounding moves, seeing how others made them, making pictures of them in his mind, and learning how to do them himself.

It happened that this was a time when the game was changing. The set shot was being superseded by the jump shot, which many coaches hated, but players liked. Russell particularly loved running and jumping, the coach of the All Star team let them play the way they wanted to, and he not only began learning to score, but also to block shots. He didn’t realize at the time that defense would be what he did best, he just enjoyed jumping, and being left-handed made it easier for him to block right-handed shots.

He made progress fast, and when he returned from the tour, found that a scout had been to see his father about him possibly playing for a college. He and his father were both glad, as his parents wanted him and his brother to be educated, and it hadn’t looked as if college would be possible. He tried out, and got a scholarship to the University of San Francisco. There he continued to learn the game, eventually helped the team win two national championships in a row, played on a team that toured Latin America and won all its games, played on the 1956 Olympic team, then joined the Boston Celtics, who then won the championship 11 of the next 13 years.
He says that the common link on all his teams was that almost all of them won, and he played on all of them. But one of them, his San Francisco team in his sophomore year, had only a mediocre record. This, he says, proved that he wasn’t the only factor in winning. He was trying hard all season, but the team atmosphere wasn’t good, and the frustration decided him to become a great player. The next two seasons the troublemakers were gone, and the team played well.
His experience with the Celtics was that they all liked each other, though he didn’t acquire many deep friendships there, and that they won because they knew how. Although they all had the athletic ability to be professional, it was strong-mindedness more than anything that was essential. Their individual goals didn’t conflict, and they understood what each person had to contribute in order to win. Winning didn’t make them more moral than anyone else, and Russell says that their maturity on the court was compensated for by immaturity off it. Most of the team were married, but ran around with women they weren’t married to. So did he.
One deep friendship he did acquire was with Red Auerbach, coach of the Celtics. Until he reached the Celtics he had had little reason to like white people. He hadn’t felt that his college or Olympic coaches understood what he was doing, and didn’t expect that a coach would. Auerbach did, however, valued what he did, and gave him insights about the game to help him improve. Russell commented later that if he’d been taken by another team he might have merely acquired a reputation as a player with a bad attitude. He didn’t feel any necessity to pretend that racism didn’t surround him; he often felt a need to confront it.
One such episode came later, when a company asked him to participate in one of their ads, trying to sell it as an opportunity to do something for black people, offered to pay him scale for it, and didn’t understand when he turned them down. He explained that he didn’t need the exposure they offered, that he was already prominent, and that they wanted to rent that prominence–cheap. The company’s representative still didn’t understand.
Being a professional turned basketball into a job. Continuing to win was more difficult than winning initially, and as a star player (and later coach) he felt the responsibility to play in the way his team needed him to play to win, even when he would have preferred to be anywhere else. The way he had learned the game helped him later, when everyone was gunning for the Celtics. He remembered that he hadn’t been a basketball natural, and that he’d had to work hard to learn how to play. At the same time, the process that had made him a professional had been extremely unlikely. Once he had decided to become professional (itself an unlikely decision, as basketball wasn’t established as a major sport then), the magic began to go away. He relied more on techniques he had already learned than on anything that he came across while playing.
Still, the magic came every now and then, when his team and another were playing hard in close competition. This seemed to raise the game to a different level which was so exhilarating that though he was trying hard to win, on some level he didn’t really care who won. Such spells were fragile, and something he didn’t feel comfortable enough to talk about. Responsibility may have made the magic harder to access, but it didn’t shut if off completely.
Another place the magic came was when he traveled to Africa to show children the game of basketball. They seemed to become almost as fascinated with the game as he had been.
Russell had been very shy growing up, but after becoming an adult, found that he learned a great deal from women. One woman in particular stimulated him intellectually by talking with him for hours and finding him books to read on subjects of interest.
One such subject was what happened when French Guinea became independent of France. France was so happy to be asked to leave the country that they tore up railroad tracks and destroyed other infrastructure on the way out. Sekou Toure, the leader of the country, asked the USA for aid, and was turned down, because we had friendly relations with France. When Toure was turned down, he asked the USSR for aid. America became concerned that Guinea was going Communist. They weren’t going Communist or Capitalist, they simply didn’t have the kinds of trained people qualified to run the country. The ideology didn’t apply.
Russell adds that despite French behavior in Guinea he admired General DeGaulle because he had gotten rid of French colonies (although he wanted France to be glorious) when he saw that colonies weren’t in the interest of France.
Another woman he mentions was a manipulator who he said he knew he shouldn’t get involved with, but couldn’t resist. She was a hustler, and introduced him to other hustlers. Getting to know her and them was interesting for him, but also for them. They didn’t feel able to resist being abused by white authorities, while Russell was trying to keep anyone from abusing him, white or black. Sometimes his name protected him in these confrontations; other times it got him into trouble, he says, especially when people asked him for autographs. He eventually refused to sign these, on principle, as people were so insulting in demanding them.
Later, after retiring, he gave lectures in colleges, and would often provide an example by calling a volunteer to the stage and pretending to choke him. He would say, “It’s all right to choke him because he’s a Nazi.” He would let the volunteer go sometimes, and the volunteer might say, “I’m not a Nazi,” but he could only say that when he wasn’t being choked. This was an analogy of American behavior to Guinea (as well as much else), which Russell calls “label and dismiss”. He labeled the volunteer as a Nazi, and dismissed the fact that he was choking him. The technique is still applied widely.
He also refused to allow the police to mistreat him. Once in Boston a policeman asked him to come to the station, and he refused to go, since he hadn’t committed any offense. Once the officer checked his license and realized who he was, they let him go. Another time, in LA, a policeman stopped him and said they’d had complaints about cars like his being stolen. Russell asked him what kind of car it was, and the policeman couldn’t tell him. These incidents of more than forty years ago echo incidents that have been publicized in the past two years.
Another incident mirroring later events is when, in the 1950s, a judge sentenced a young black man to 66 years in prison for smoking weed. This, said Russell, sent shockwaves through the black community. The white community didn’t notice until whites started smoking marijuana (among other things), when the penalties got drastically reduced–for whites. Likewise, later sentencing practices with cocaine: sentences for crack (more often used by blacks) are much higher than sentences for powder (more frequently used by whites).
As Russell puts it, the ego is a paradox: the place from which we see, but which also makes us blind. It can make us feel small or high and mighty. He notes the 1958 season, when he was the most valuable player in the NBA, but put on none of the all star teams by white sports writers as an example of the sort of contortions racism forces people to go through. He says he tries to handle his ego like any other part of his character. To defend it, but also keep it under control. Some, he says, try to subordinate their egos to institutions or other individuals. He prefers to take responsibility for his ego, and neither let it run his life nor cause others to suffer.
It seems almost strange that so much of Russell’s memoir has to do with racism, until you remember that it was his generation in which the Civil Rights movement really began accomplishing things. If he experienced racism, so must most of the people in his age group. Maybe it’s curious that his later experiences with it had fewer repercussions than if they’d happened in the Deep South. On the other hand, he reports being upset after driving through the South with his two young children and being unable to feed them in restaurants or stay in hotels. Maybe the seriousness of what could happen to him diminished in other parts of the country, even if the quality of the disdain was similar. Is his experience still common in the black community? I suspect it is, though I can’t say for certain.
His question seems to have been less about how racism came about, which interests me, than how to reply to it. He subscribed to what his father said: “Nonviolent is what I am before someone hits me.” People didn’t literally hit him in later life, but he found it curious that people in Boston supported Martin Luther King–at first. He thought perhaps it was because people didn’t think King’s message would change their lives. When they found it might, their tune changed. Geography didn’t do away with racism.
Ultimately, the book isn’t all racism all the time. It’s about the development of one person, who happens to be black. Racism is mentioned because it was a lot of his experience, but the second half of the book is about his experiments in living after his athletic career. He mentions racism in that section occasionally, since it was still present, but his focus is on what he learned and how he decided to live. Racism was unavoidable for him, but wasn’t the most important thing in his life, any more than the game of basketball was. He felt about basketball the way an artist feels about what he or she does, but when basketball was over it was finished for him. A great learning experience, but no more. I don’t think I know of any athlete who has shared shared so much of his life besides the record of the sport he played. That in itself makes his memoir an unusually rich one.