Writing as an Act of Defiance

As the Vietnam War escalated in the late 1960s I marched and protested, raged and wept for our country and Vietnam. Fifty years later, we are living through another extraordinary, terrifying time. We’re being stalked by a pandemic, living under political strong-arming, in a deeply divided country. Our economy teeters on the brink of collapse. But there is also an exhilaration to these dangerous times: fast, extraordinary change is possible.

To create change requires heroic, courageous people who dare to defy the prevailing narrative. These are the people who understand that democracy is not a steady state. It has to be protected and fought for, over and over.

I want teens and tweens to know some of these brave people who’ve come before, who entered the fray, risked their livelihoods and lives in earlier struggles. As a writer, I am especially drawn to the overlooked, the silenced and erased voices, and the artists who make sure we hear these voices.

All are people living in hard times, using their art, their feet, and their endurance to insist on change. I want young people to know that we’ve hit desperate times before, and that ordinary people rose to the challenge and made a difference.

There were photographers like ­Dorothea Lange, best known for her image of Migrant Mother, taken during the Great Depression when one out of four workers was unemployed, when thousands were homeless, blown out, dusted out, “tractored out” of their homes. Lange ceaselessly traveled back roads with her camera, determined to show their plight, their strength and pride despite their circumstances. As she observed: “Life, for people, begins to crumble on the edges; they don’t realize it.”

We feel the same crumbling edges today, and we wait to see just how bad it will get. Will our children be able to go to school? Will families be evicted from their homes and forced to live in cars and tents on our city streets? Will we be trying to live off scanty unemployment funds along with millions of other Americans?

During WWII, Lange went on to photograph the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American people on the West Coast. The government hired her to show that the process was “orderly and humane.” She was not allowed to turn her camera on the guard towers with machine guns at the ready, the barbed wire fencing, the toilets lined up next to each other with no separation. Despite these restrictions, she left a rich, telling legacy of images: tagged children, endless lines for meals, and fierce windstorms blowing clouds of dust and stinging pebbles. “This is what we did,” she said. “How did it happen? How could we?”

Another Great Depression chronicler was balladeer Woody Guthrie, whose song “This Land Is Your Land” is sung in nearly every elementary school across America. Take a look at his original lyrics, with the two “lost” verses now finally being acknowledged:

As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

* * *

In the turbulent times of the Vietnam War and protest, John Lennon found a way to say what we felt. He was extraordinarily complicated, a genius tinged with creative madness. He could boil down our generation’s turbulent thoughts and turn out anthems like “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine.” Meeting with a reporter (Jann S. Wenner, Rolling Stone), his words would galvanize us: “We are all in little boxes, and somebody has to go in and rip your fuckin’ head open for you to allow something else in.” Yes, we’d think, yes.

It’s not only the artists I like to write about. There are also the voices of ordinary people who happen to be in the right place at the right time, with the conviction, courage, and stubbornness to do their part. They are usually young and idealistic, not much older than my intended readers. I find their names in books’ back matter or tiny-print footnotes, or mentioned in old newspaper articles. I search out those willing to tell their stories to a stranger.

In 1965 Lynda Blackmon Lowery turned fifteen on the march from Selma to Montgomery that highlighted the need for voting rights. Not old enough to vote, she answered the call for action from Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and others from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). “I was not brave,” she said later to me in an interview for my book Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary. “I was not courageous. I was determined. That’s how I got to Montgomery.”

    

I found more voices, this time the voices of the Vietnam War, by interviewing those who had been frontline soldiers, protestors, and refugees for Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam. During the decade of the war, presidents set policies and sent tens of thousands of young Americans to fight and die. Some went willingly, others were drafted. I found heroism and bravery in soldiers, protestors, and Vietnamese families. Dorothea’s words echoed in my mind: “This is what we did. How did it happen? How could we?” I want teens today to ask themselves these same questions.

To write about ordinary people caught in times of huge, historic change, I inhabit an oddly transparent double-world: there is my ordinary, rather mundane life, and then there is the world of the book I am working on. I’m immersed in a time of conflict and bitterness, digging in and sorting out as best I can, to raise up the stronghearted who help make the world a little better. These days I’m working on lives as different as Frederick Law Olmsted and his tireless efforts in the nineteenth century to create open, free, public parks in our cites; and Hung Liu, a contemporary Chinese American artist whose paintings focus on society’s outcasts.

Setting word against word, I’m rubbing flint against stone, trying to set off sparks. I’m looking for readers I know are out there: kids with courageous hearts, who know things aren’t right. Kids who want to make things better, but don’t know how.

Spark. Listen, I want to say. Spark. Look. Others who’ve come before you have done this. Change is possible. You can march, protest, make music or take photographs or so many other things. You can break rules and be stubborn and unreasonable.

Be your passionate, idealistic self. The time has come. We need you.

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Elizabeth Partridge
Elizabeth Partridge

Elizabeth Partridge's favorite projects are at the collision point of tubulent times, politics, social justice, and art. Her upcoming subjects include painter, Hung Liu, photographer Imogen Cunningham, and Manzanar photographers Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams. Visit elizabethpartridge.com.

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Rena Epstein

I am not a teen or tween, but a child of the sixties who needed to hear your words as we watch these election results slowly unfold. Thank you for reminding me that if we keep working and marching and singing together, we can continue to make change, no matter what.

Posted : Nov 04, 2020 09:58


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