I wrote this piece for my memoir group in 2000, and it seems relevant again, what with all this talk about the “real” America and the “real” Virginia (yes, Santa Claus, there is a Virginia?) Jon Stewart says it well...Osama Bin Ladin must feel really embarrassed—he bombed the fake America (New York and Washington), not the real one!
I never thought about it quite this way, but I may be purple. Not lavender, though I am that too, but purple, as in a hybrid of red state and blue state. My father was heartland, born in Bay City, Michigan, and grew up there, on rented farms nearby, and in Detroit. His parents were nominally Protestant, which got him beaten up by the boys in one mostly French-Canadian neighborhood, but he was the second of five brothers, so his team probably gave as good as they got. His father would get saved now and then, but the family was not particularly religious. My grandmother was an atheist when I knew her. My dad followed the harvest across the country, once, and shipped out of San Francisco as a merchant seaman, but much of his life he was a union carpenter. He finished the eighth grade and then read a lot. His favorite poets were American. He liked hominy with maple syrup.
My mother was coastal, born and raised in San Francisco, her parents Eastern European non-religious socialist Jewish immigrants who ran a tailor shop. She went to Cal, got a Ph.D. in Romance Philology from the English department there. She could quote poetry in Middle English by heart. She learned Jewish cooking at home and Italian cooking from a friend. Her parents moved to Long Beach, and she was with them when, in the early thirties, the Ku Klux Klan raided their home. The police took her typewriter “as evidence” and she never got it back.
My parents both were in the Communist Party in the thirties and forties, feeling that that was where the action was—the socialist parties seemed more interested in theory—but I remember my dad saying he felt the Party was too oriented toward Europe and didn’t look to the homegrown roots of socialism in the United States: the utopian communities, Gene Debs, and such. Maybe this was his Midwestern viewpoint, but I think he was onto something.
I was born in Omaha but grew up in Berkeley and Long Beach. Berkeley was Berkeley, even then, but Long Beach was full of retired midwesterners. After a bit of culture shock, I adapted, found my oddball peers, and eventually thrived. I was, as my father said, a corn-fed Nebraska shoat. It took me a long time to learn to like blintzes and cabbage rolls and gefilte fish, and I never learned to like cioppino, but my mother and I would go out for Chinese food whenever my father was out of town. One of my songs says: “I’ll never be tempted to jump off the bridge/ With leftover chicken chow fun in the fridge.”
When my midwestern partner Carole and I took our seven-month trip across the country, I felt as at home in the Midwest as I did in the East. We found feminists everywhere, lesbians everywhere, radicals everywhere. This did not surprise me. I knew from my father about the populist tradition that gave this country Robert La Follette in the Midwest and the IWW in the mountain states. We visited my cousins in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and heard about the local pride in the towns' having been an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
We also felt at home in the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee, with their tradition of fierce union struggles. We stayed at Highlander Folk School, where Rosa Parks had attended a workshop shortly before she refused to give up her bus seat. We went to the National Storytelling Festival, where we saw a bumper strip that said “Nuclear Power Is a Sin.” There’s “moral values” for you.
It was only in the deep South, driving through Georgia and Alabama to New Orleans, that we felt uneasy. Once we got to the French Quarter, of course, we were right at home again. Beignets! Pommes frites! In Texas we visited the Pacifica station and performed at the Unitarian Church in Houston.
So I know both from upbringing and from travel that the red-and-blue map is dead wrong and the red-purple-blue map is right. I know you can like both lattes and cheese curds, both Cole Porter and Willie Nelson, both Berkeley and Omaha, because I do.
©2008 by Nancy Schimmel
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
The purple America map from Cafe Presshttp://www.cafepress.com/purpleamerica