“An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” Arthur Miller
I’ve begun to organize what to tell the Valparaiso University Urban Sociology students in Mary Kate Blake’s class next week when I distribute by 1980s Steel Shavings, “The Uncertainty of Everyday Life” in the Calumet Region. I’ll identify myself as a regional, rather than a purely local, historian and define the Calumet Region as the geographic area drained by the Grand and Little Calumet rivers in northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois and part of the Great Lakes basin. I’ll distinguish among the 4 main Lake County cities, Gary, Hammond, East Chicago, and Whiting, all of which grew rapidly as a result of industrialization and largely unrestricted immigration during the turn of the twentieth century. I’ll contrast the memoirs and oral histories that constitute most of the issue’s contents with the essay by Lance Trusty, “End of an Era: The 1980s in the Calumet,” based largely on census figures and other written sources. Finally, I’ll explain the title, “The Uncertainly of Everyday Life,” in connection with the Ronald Reagan presidency, the 1986-87 U.S. Steel lockout, and the drastic decline in mill employment due to automation. The phrase, though true to some extent in every decade, was inspired by misfortunes that affected adolescents as well as such unexpected events as the slaying of elderly Glen Park Bible teacher Ruth Pelke, the Cline Avenue Bridge disaster, and the sudden death of 47 year-old First District Congressman Adam Benjamin, Jr.
Sandra L. Barnes
A book on Mary Kate Blake’s reading list by urban sociologist Sandra L. Barnes, “The Cost of Being Poor: A Comparative Study of Life in Poor Urban Neighborhoods in Gary, Indiana (2005), contains an interesting interview with Tamara Davis (it isn’t clear if that is her real name) who grew up in Gary, graduated from IUN, lives in a Merrillville apartment, and is a caseworker in LaPorte. Her parents belonged to a Baptist church and stressed the value of family and education. Thirty years old when interviewed 20 years ago, Tamara told Barnes, a professor at Vanderbilt, that her dad was illiterate but worked for American Bridge Company until the Gary plant closed at the end of the 1970s. Barnes recorded Tamara’s recollections:
I remember when I was real little, my mother was working at the bank and my father got laid off. At first I really couldn’t tell that things had changed, but as I got older, we used to collect aluminum cans for money and recycle newspaper, so then I knew that [father’s layoff] had affected our finances. They used to argue about the division of labor. My mother said that if she came home from work, the dinner should be ready and that type of thing. I do remember him cooking occasionally but only one or two things so I’m not really sure he really could cook. I know he did not clean. But he did do a lot of babysitting even if it was just dragging the kids around wherever he was going.
Once I got older, I knew that we were poor. One time, these jeans came out that had like, fake leather on the front, and everybody had some. And I was gonna lose my mind if I didn’t get any. All my friends wanted to take these picture together in school with these same jeans on. My mother didn’t have the money and I was just screaming and crying, so she borrowed the money from my aunt. And I remember her on the phone talking to my other aunt about what my aunts puts you through to borrow money from her and I felt bad that I had put my mother through that just for a pair of jeans.
Tamara told Barnes that she would consider living in Gary but only if she could live in a good neighborhood rather than one of the poorer areas. She added:
Gary is my home, probably because I grew up there. And the people I work with are from Gary. I still have close community ties with people from Gary – and it’s the one area here that has the most Black people.
I try to show as much support for Gary as I can, but I try not to be stupid either. Things like groceries would be too expensive to get in Gary. But I bank at a credit union in Gary. If you look at young people in Gary, they’re wearing one hundred dollar gym shoes and outfits where the pants alone were one hundred dollars, so it’s how you choose to spend your money. I think there’s a lot of money to be spent in Gary, but unfortunately it’s not being spent in Gary.
I work with White people all the time, and they always say, “You go to Gary?" – as if people are just falling down dead on every corner. When it’s not that. If you’re engaged in the wrong types of activities, which could happen in Valparaiso, Hammond, Portage, Merrillville or where ever, then you run the risk of, you know, murder or whatever. But unless you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – and you just never go to those places – then you are relatively safe.
In a New Yorker profile David Remnick wrote that Chicago Blues legend Buddy Guy feared he might be the last of his ilk. When a teenager Guy paid 50 cents to see Guitar Slim (1926-1959) at the Masonic Temple in Baton Rouge. When the band started playing “The Things I Used To Do,” the headliner was nowhere in sight. Remnick wrote:
It was only after a while that anyone could see Slim, his hair dyed flaming red to match his suit, being carried forward through the crowd by a hulking roadie. Using a 300 foot cord to connect his guitar to his amplifier, he played a frenzied solo as his one-man caravan inched him toward the stage. And, once he joined the band, Slim pulled every stunt imaginable, playing the guitar between his legs, behind his back. He raised it to his face and plucked the strings with his teeth. As Guy watched Slim, he made a decision: "I want to play like B.B. King, but I want to act like Guitar Slim.”
A quarter-century ago, I saw Buddy Guy at a Star Plaza House Rockin’ Blues concert produced by Henry and Omar Farag. He pulled off some of the same stunts he observed Guitar Slim doing that evening, including going down the aisles and up in the balcony while playing a guitar solo.
Former IUN colleague Ed Escobar sent this response to my piece about the Concerned Latins Organization (CLO) that referenced to our book “Forging a Community”:
The CLO was before my time there but I certainly remember being regaled with stories from David Castro and to a lesser extent from Jesse Villalpando about its accomplishments. Among the many joys I had while I was in Indiana was hanging out with them when we were building the Historical Society.
Both Gayle and I continue to be active historians. She is having an article published by a journal affiliated with the Ninth Circuit Court on her book on the California women’s suffrage movement and gave a presentation before the L.A. History Group on her new work on women journalists in the early 20th century. I continue to work on my second book on relations between Chicanos and the LAPD (1945-2000) which is now about 80% completed. After totally lapsing into inactivity due to the disruption of move, I’ve joined a writing group of historians at Berkeley and am picking up steam again. Wish me luck.
While completing unit in class on the World War II homefront, Nicole Anslover mentioned the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, one the central events in Escobar’s “Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-1945.” During a discussion about Japanese internment, justified at the time as a military necessity. I mentioned that in Hawaii, where the threat of Japanese invasion was more plausible than on the West Coast, Japanese-Americans were not interned, except in exceptional cases. For one thing, it would have been impractical, considering that over 40 percent of the population would have been affected. When Nicole brought up the Tuskegee Airmen, I noted that black officers were arrested at Fort Freeman near Seymour, Indiana, for trying to desegregate an all-white officers’ club. Most military training camps were in the South, and a series of ugly attacks on servicemen by local rednecks caused essayist James Baldwin to write that many parents of black soldiers were relieved when their sons left the South to be shipped overseas into combat.
above, arrested Tuskegee Airmen; below, Anne Balay with Stephanie and Brandie Diamond
Despite two nationally acclaimed books, on LGBT steelworkers and long-haul trucker, Anna Balay does not have a full-time position in the Fall. What a disgusting commentary on the current state of academia and the gutless, faint-hearted professors who claim to be her supporters. Here’s her latest post as she embarked on a trip to Oxford, Mississippi to speak about her book “Semi-Queer” and on the way reunited with trucker buddies Stephanie and Brandie Diamond:
I'm trying to give myself permission to be angry and sad that I'm leaving academia because no school has hired me, but also hold on to the real value of my writing and activist scholarship. SO, out this morning for an early run, trying to face the future with joy, I tripped and fell full length smashing both knees, an elbow, and my face. Icing now.
below, Ray Smock and historian Richard Rector
At a talk and book signing for “American Demagogue” In Shepherdstown, West Virginia, an audience member asked Ray Smock if Trump could be re-elected. As much as he hated to say it, Ray admitted its possibility and added these comments:
We learned the hard way in 2016 that a blatant demagogue can win the highest office in the land. Not only did Trump beat Hillary Clinton, he first had to beat 11 other Republican nominees and five more that dropped out before the primaries got underway. This should alert us to the power to sway voters that is contained in the tactics of fear, hate, ridicule, smears, lies, bombast, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia.
Whoever emerges from the Democratic Party to take on Trump in 2020 will have to be a strong, self-assured individual who can stand up to Trump’s nuclear blasts of demagoguery. And the Democratic candidate cannot afford to take the low ground of demagoguery to fight Trump the Demagogue. I wonder if there are enough American voters who can set aside their own fears and anxieties long enough to see through the dark forces of Trumpism.
The Democratic candidate who can defeat Trump will have to be able to use humor rather than outright ridicule to challenge Trump. It is the rare politician that has a natural ability to use humor. Humor can be an important political tool, and it can be a hopeful, positive tactic to de-fang demagogues. Trump has no sense of humor. It takes empathy to be funny. It takes a broader understanding of human nature to use humor than it does to appeal to fear and hate.
A Democratic challenger to Trump needs to be a good story teller who can tell stories about America and the promise of America. The Democratic challenger needs more than a slogan like “Make America Great Again,” which is nothing but a dog whistle for keeping America white. Americans love a good story, one with a moral. Trump is not a story teller. He tells stories only about himself. His concept of humor is ridiculing his enemies.
While at Inman’s watching James bowl, I read a few pages of “I Am Malala,” given to me several years ago by former student Terry Helton. Malala Yousafzai’s childhood in Mingora, Pakistan was unimaginably different from American adolescents, yet she listened to Justin Bieber and enjoyed Twilight Saga movies. Her mother was illiterate and her father the founder of a school for girls. The youngest Nobel Prize laureate, Malala at age 12 was shot in the head while on a bus by a Taliban gunman because she was an advocate for education for women. I started paying close attention during my grandson’s third game as he flirted with a 200, needing a strike in the tenth for a double. Instead he spared and settled for a 196.
Christina Thompson’s “Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia” documents centuries-old efforts to understand a seafaring people who colonized islands stretching more than half way around the world. As New Zealand ethnologist Elsdor Best wrote, “Could the story of Polynesian voyageurs be written in full, then it would be the wonder-story of the world.” 4,000 years ago, during the Ice Age the sea level was several hundred feet lower than at present, and a continent existed where the Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, and New Guinea are today. Beginning around 4,000 years ago and ending around 1100 A.D. Polynesian settlement spread from New Zealand north to Hawaii and southeast to Easter Island. Contact with Europeans (and contagious diseases) decimated Oceana, threatening some native populations with extinction.
Captain James Cook
Having lived in Hawaii for 18 months, I was intrigued by the account of Captain James Cook’s death on February 14, 1779. According to legend, the Hawaiians believed he was the god Lono and killed him when they realized he was human and ate his flesh. Thompson explained that Cook arrived while a festival honoring Lono, the god of fertility and peace, was underway, and Cook was honored not as a deity but simply as the human embodiment of Lono. Cook sailed away but returned several days later after a ship’s foremast broke during a sudden storm with gale force winds. Since the festival had concluded, Cook and his men were now met with distrust. When repairing the mast, the crew encountered hostility, and thefts began occurring, including the disappearance of a cutter vessel. During the subsequent standoff, a Hawaiian chief was shot, causing angry natives to attack Cook’s party, killing the Captain. The Hawaiians were not cannibals and cooked part of Cook’s body, not for food but because they believed that his power lay in his bones and this way they could be easily removed.
Meagan Flynn of the Washington Post wrote about the conviction of six people from Beatrice, Nebraska, some of whom were tricked by a police psychologist into confessing to the 1985 rape and murder of an elderly woman based on a theory of “memory repression.” Several were involved in the porn industry, which brought them to the attention of authorities. Police would tell suspects details of the crime and suggest that the truth would be revealed to them in their dreams. DNA tests eventually exonerated the so-called Beatrice Six (above), and recently the Supreme Court upheld a 28.1 million dollar judgment for wrongful conviction.