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A Memoir of the War Years, 1960â"1975
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
San Francisco Chrysalis
On New Year's Day, 1960, my husband and I packed our 1958 Volvo coupe with everything we owned and aimed west on Route 66, headed for a new life together in the promised land, the paradise of every Okie's dream.
As we left the frozen red ground of Oklahoma, I said a silent prayer, really a declaration, to a god I barely believed in anymore: I am free; I have escaped.
I was twenty-one years old and had lived all my life in two counties in Oklahoma, sixteen of those years in rural isolation. I had never been east of the Mississippi nor flown in an airplane. Jimmy was twenty-three, and far worldlier. His father was a construction superintendent who had moved the family to different job locations throughout Jimmy's childhood. The family had spent two years in each of several surrounding states, and Jimmy changed schools six times. His family, like most middle-class Oklahoma families, took vacations to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Carlsbad Caverns. Unlike me, Jimmy found it easy to talk to strangers and make new friends; I envied his self-confidence. He seemed to know exactly who he was, where he had come from, and where he was going, whereas I did not have a clue. I was eager to follow him to his chosen destination rather than founder in my own uncertainty.
These disparities set us up for failure. Four years later, after I left him, Jimmy would accuse me of using him and his family, saying that since I did not have the guts to leave Oklahoma on my own, I had pressured him to move us to California while plotting to abandon him once I was in a secure position. Sometimes I think I remember telling myself just that as we sped westward down the blacktop into the frigid, quiet dawn of the new year. Perhaps my intentions were irrelevant, for the fact is that I did leave him when I felt more confident, when I had a college degree and my own friends.
When I applied for the fall 1960 semester at the University of California, Berkeley, I had the naive idea that all state universities were interconnected and that my year at Oklahoma University automatically assured my acceptance at Berkeley. Instead, the admissions officer tossed the transcript back across his desk, curled his lip, and announced, "This counts for nothing here." He then told me that I needed five courses in science and math and four in foreign language to even apply to Berkeley. After a semester at the local junior college taking the required courses, I gave up and I reconciled myself to San Francisco State College. However, during the first eight months in San Francisco, I worked until the fall semester began. I was hired as an order clerk at Remington Rand. I rode the cable car downtown—it was our bus line—and filled out sales forms all day. From my perch on a mezzanine above the vast sales floor, I could see the spooky, futuristic Univac, the hulking mainframe computer that they claimed would eliminate the kind of work I was doing in a few years. I felt a rumbling of fear and insecurity.
In California in the early 1960s, being an Oklahoman still carried a stigma. Negative memories and stereotypes about the Dust Bowl Okie migrants still circulated in the Golden State. John Steinbeck was still alive; his novel The Grapes of Wrath and the subsequent John Ford movie romanticized Depression-era migrants to California, who were dubbed "Okies" no matter what southwestern or midwestern state they hailed from. Still, most Californians regarded Okies as dirty, shifty, lazy, violent, and ignorant. Although we had a year before having to acquire California license plates, after being honked at and yelled at every time we drove, we decided to register early. Upon discovering my Oklahoma roots, some people considered it a compliment to tell me that I did not look or act like an Okie. When Jimmy, who was prouder than I was to be from Oklahoma, was given that "compliment," he defended Oklahoma. I was mortified, however, and would try to change the subject. I worked hard to lose my accent. Only recent immigrants from faraway places had no prejudice against Okies or Oklahoma—they did not even know where it was—and I felt most comfortable with them.
Others I met in San Francisco were immersed in the folk music revival and knew Oklahoma as the home of Woody Guthrie, but some of these same people noticed that my accent resembled the accent of despised racists they had heard speak on television. They seemed uncomfortable with my direct experience of rural poverty inasmuch as they were accustomed to regarding the poor as "the other," so I felt a strange alienation whenever Woody's name came up.
Those first four years in San Francisco were formative and decisive. Wherever I was headed—and I had no idea where that might be—I did not want to turn back. It is difficult to extract from those years the germinal threads of my political radicalism and hard-core feminism; perhaps it is how the butterfly remembers the caterpillar.
When I arrived in San Francisco, I already hated the death penalty due to my traumatized reaction to the radio report of the 1953 Rosenbergs' executions, but that passive revulsion became central to my values with the execution of Caryl Chessman. Chessman was called The Red-Light Bandit because he allegedly kidnapped his rape victims by pretending to be a policeman. He was not charged with murder; his death penalty was based on the Lindbergh law that made kidnapping punishable by death. Chessman claimed innocence to the end, and after eight failed appeals, he awaited the decision of liberal Democratic governor Edmund "Pat" Brown. Chessman wrote an autobiography, Cell 2455, Death Row, and the book became a best-seller, galvanizing sympathy, as well as a movement against the death penalty that continued after his execution and remains unfinished business in the early twenty-first century. A round-the-clock vigil at San Quentin prison, located across the Bay from San Francisco, dominated local television news and newspapers. I was absorbed in the issue, but it never occurred to me that I could join the vigil or demonstrations. I had witnessed only two demonstrations in my life: a sit-in to integrate Katz Drugstore coffee shop in Oklahoma City in the mid-1950s, and a Ban the Bomb protest by a small group of older women hovering under umbrellas in a downpour and holding wet, sagging placards. I assumed that such events required an invitation to join.
On Friday, May 13, 1960, having left work early to go to the Main Library in Civic Center, I came upon a scene that I could not comprehend. I witnessed what first appeared to be human bodies gyrating and screaming while suspended in midair directly across the plaza that divided the library from city hall. Dozens of other bodies were sprawled on the sidewalk in front of city hall. As I cautiously moved closer, I could see that powerful water torrents from fire hoses were holding the bodies in midair until those bodies crashed to the marble steps below. I realized I was probably witnessing a horrible, historic event, but I was afraid to move closer. The evening news confirmed my suspicion. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had convened at city hall to investigate local activists' possible communist connections, and a crowd of people, many of them Berkeley students who had also led protests against the Chessman execution, gathered to disrupt the HUAC meeting. Their demonstration succeeded; HUAC tucked tail and fled San Francisco.
At San Francisco State College I began to rub shoulders with some of the brave youth who challenged the death penalty and government repression. The campus radicals were preparing to participate in the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Rides, a national student project organized by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), one of the largest civil rights groups. They set up a recruitment table in front of the cafeteria. I passed the recruitment table often and on purpose, each time determined to stop, but I did not know what to say and I was sure I could not even consider joining the group. Jimmy would be against it, and, in any case, it seemed like an exclusive club to which I could never belong. I thought perhaps I could volunteer to support the cause by typing or answering phones, but I was afraid the activists would reject me. I longed to know those people. One day I mustered my courage and approached the table. Three students were engrossed in conversation. I stood there feeling invisible and embarrassed.
"Excuse me. Are you all going to be talking to poor whites down there?"
I was surprised at the sound of my own voice and even more surprised at the words that came out. The question had crossed my mind, but it was not the question I had intended to ask. The conversation stopped, and my words echoed back at me. I was self-conscious and aware of my Jackie Kennedy–imitation appearance and of the twang in my speech. They stared at me for what seemed like a long time. One of the guys finally said, "No, and we ain't recruitin' 'em either." They resumed their conversation and ignored me. I walked to the restroom in a daze, and once alone inside the stall, sobbed.
Soon after that incident I made a new friend on campus who confided in me that he had been a heroin addict but now had been clean for a year. At fifteen, Frank had run away from an abusive, alcoholic father and a life of rural poverty in Utah only to end up a hopeless addict in the San Francisco Tenderloin. There he met his wife, and they later had a little boy. He had quit drugs and started studying for a degree, also working as most students at State did. I often visited them at their small apartment near the campus. Frank was a serious jazz fan. He had built his own music system from components and had a large collection of reel-to-reel jazz tapes he played for me. Frank was radical in his thinking and had read widely, but he was contemptuous of the radicals on campus, whom he called elitists from wealthy families.
From Frank, I learned for the first time about the wartime relocation of Japanese Americans and questioned how I got to age twenty-two without ever having heard of it. He said that when the Roosevelt administration ordered the internment of all U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, a man named Dillon Meyer was appointed to establish and administer the concentration camps. After the war, when Congress decided that Native American communal landholding was communistic, Meyer was put in charge of relocating Indians to urban areas and revoking their reservation status, a policy eerily but officially called termination. He also said that the reason behind the Japanese American internment was California governor Earl Warren's support for the agribusiness lobby that wanted to take over all the farm land in the Central Valley, a good deal of it owned in small plots by Japanese American truck farmers.
One day, Frank's wife left him and took their child back to her family's home in Utah. He was distraught, and then he did not appear on campus for a week. I tried to call him, but his home phone was disconnected. Some time later, I read in the paper that a skid row residence hotel had burned down, that someone smoking in bed had started the fire, and that someone had died. It was Frank.
I befriended another troubled loner, a fellow student in one of my classes. Hendrik was from a working-class Dutch immigrant family, and he too talked about the terrible deeds of big business and banks. One day he invited me to a meeting of a new student club, State, which gathered weekly on campus and some evenings off campus. There were only a half dozen or so young, white men at the meeting and they seemed surprised that Hendrik had brought a woman into the group. They talked about the importance of the State, which I had mistaken to mean San Francisco State, which students called State, and when I figured out they were referring to the government, I thought they had been reading Hegel. I attended three meetings before the leader unwrapped and displayed a souvenir Iron Cross and a swastika. I realized then that it was not Hegel but rather Mein Kampf that formed their thinking. I fled the room and avoided Hendrik after that.
Another chance encounter changed my thinking and direction permanently. One day in the cafeteria at San Francisco State, a young Black man handed me a flyer advertising a lecture that afternoon by Malcolm X, whom I had never heard of. He introduced himself as Art Sheridan and asked if he could sit down. Sure, I said, pleased to be invited to an event. Art said he was with the DuBois Club on campus, and I thought he said boys' club, but he wrote the name down for me and told me about W. E. B. DuBois, the great African American scholar, writer, and radical. Art explained that Malcolm was not well known on the West Coast but was the chief public representative of the Nation of Islam, more popularly known as Black Muslims, which was headed by Elijah Muhammad. I cut my class and went to the lecture. From my friendship with Arab Muslims, I had a positive view of Islam.
I was unprepared for the profound effect that Malcolm X, and the setting itself, would have on me. The lecture was held in an ordinary fifty-seat classroom that was packed with people overflowing into the hallway and sitting in the windowsills and on the floor. More than half of the audience was Black; many were not students but rather community activists from the San Francisco and Oakland Black communities. I squeezed into a space on the windowsill close to the front of the room. I saw Art nearby and waved. The white students in attendance were the campus radicals, including the ones who had rebuffed me.
Malcolm X entered flanked by two bodyguards who stayed very close to him. All three men were dressed in dark suits, crisp white dress shirts, black bow ties, and shiny black oxfords. Malcolm X was much older than I expected; he was thirteen years older than me but seemed ancient in a way. At first he seemed like a pastor, and I expected him to speak about god, but Malcolm did not talk about god or religion at all. What he said changed my worldview.
Malcolm pointed out that many well-meaning people believed in integration, and that many had even risked their lives for that cause. He agreed that segregation laws should be struck down. However, he challenged the idea of integration through racial mixture that would dilute blackness until African Americans would no longer exist as a people, a nation. Malcolm called such a process genocide and claimed that the U.S. system wanted to get rid of African Americans by melting them down. He said that Africans were here to stay and would exist as a people and a nation, not as separate random individuals taking their place in the U.S. melting pot and giving themselves over to the American dream, a dream that he said was in truth a nightmare. He said that Africans in the United States would determine their own future and would do so "by any means necessary." He said that Black people in the United States would fight to the death to defend their right to be a people and to live as a nation.
He spoke for an hour with no notes and few gestures in a modulated voice that was never raised in anger. He ended his speech and immediately left the room with a bodyguard in front and behind him. The students filed out, speaking quietly among themselves. I sat on the windowsill almost in a daze. The message was different from anything I had ever heard. As I walked out of the building, the campus was clogged with thousands of students rushing to and from classes. Now I noticed the Black faces in the sea of white ones, and when I saw a Black face, I understood that that person was not a black-skinned white person; that individual was part of the Black Nation. I understood that the answer to white supremacy was not integration based on assimilating individuals. I knew that segregation as practice and law had to end, but now I believed that Black self-determination was the key to overcoming racism and racial segregation.
I spent little time on campus and made no lasting friends there during the first two years. Domestic life swallowed my time, and my only close friend was a burden. Pamela, who was from New Zealand and the wife of Jimmy's coworker, Dick, became my closest friend. They lived three blocks from us. When we first met, Pam was only nineteen years old and a high school dropout, but she was beautiful, smart, outspoken, well read, opinionated, and dramatic. She proclaimed her anti-colonial, anti-U.S.-imperialism, and anti-capitalist views with a confidence I envied. But Pam was also troubled and was eventually confined to the University of California Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital, diagnosed as schizophrenic after several suicide attempts.
The first suicide try I knew about came after she became pregnant; she slashed her wrists and almost died. Because her life was endangered by the pregnancy, she was permitted to have a legal therapeutic abortion. At that time, abortion was illegal in all the states. Tens of thousands of poor women died every year from back-alley or self-inflicted abortions, whereas girls and women who could afford it traveled to México or Puerto Rico to have the simple medical procedure performed by a real doctor. Most women who risked their lives for often-botched abortions already had a brood of children and could not even afford to care for the ones they had. After several years of irresponsible testing with large doses of estrogen on Puerto Rican women who paid with their lives lost to breast, uterine, and cervical cancers, the birth control pill was just undergoing approval (at a much lower dosage) in the United States.
Excerpted from Outlaw Woman by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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