Shootings, Riots, and Stolen Scoops of Corn

corn-scoops

I was eating lunch with relatives and the drift of the conversation was that charges of racism in this country are overblown.

Our own family history says otherwise.

Earlier in the week I had been reading some of my dad’s recollections about visiting his grandpa in Ozan, Arkansas in the 1930’s. Dad was a teenager at the time.

Great-grandma asked Dad to take two bags of corn to the miller. One sack would be ground fine as cornmeal and the other would be ground as cracked corn for the chickens.

I’ll let Dad tell what happened next: “I got in line with my sacks. The miller had a huge barrel next to his grinders, and he would dip his scoop into each customer’s sacks, dumping his share in the barrel. Some white farmers came up and he just took a little corn, but if the customer was black, it was amazing how much that scoop could hold.”

Of course, I’d heard and read stories of racism before. But Dad’s memory of African Americans being cheated at the miller’s was a fresh slap. It was the pettiness that really got to me. Dad’s story showed me that, in every way possible, white Americans had a systemic pattern of stealing from African Americans.

The true purpose of racism is to advance economically at the expense of someone else.

What worries me is the children who went hungry because of “how much that scoop could hold.” Imagine dinnertime in Ozan all those years ago. Parents always eat less so their kids won’t go hungry. But there would always be the day, or days, when that missing corn meant that children would go hungry. (If you don’t know the devastating effect hunger has on children’s educational, physical, and moral well-being, check out this article by Feeding America.)

Generation after generation of “scoops” have been stolen off the tables of African American families. And any time African Americans try to get a fair deal, there is a backlash.

In 1920, Tulsa, Oklahoma, had one of the most wealthy and successful African American communities in the country. My Dad, growing up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in the 1930’s never heard about 1921 Tulsa’s ‘race riot.’ (For some reason, Tulsans thought that if you didn’t put it in a book, no one would ever find out.) Let’s call the 1921 ‘race riot’ for what it was, the indiscriminate murder of 300 African Americans and the burning of 35 blocks of businesses and homes. Whites taking their ‘scoop.’

Backlash isn’t ancient history. You can see it clearly today. Everything from questioning Barrack Obama’s citizenship, to black men and women pulled over for ‘driving while black,’ to black men and boys being shot by vigilantes and police officers.

Racism is an insidious part of our American belief system. Not only for white Americans like my family who have slave-holding ancestors, but people who come to this country and adopt its customs without taking a closer look at our ingrained prejudices.

It would be nice if my great-grandparents, God-fearing Christians, had tried to stop the large and small thefts against African Americans being committed in their community.

They didn’t.

Like most people who go along with graft, they fell into the trap of believing that they were entitled to special treatment. To more cornmeal, to the best parts of a slaughtered pig, to the better acres for farming. That somehow it was okay that the cornbread on their dinner table was subsidized by hard-working African Americans.

The protests we have seen on the street and yes, even in the football stadium, are showing us the justified anger of African Americans.

And those protests are not enough. The next step should come from the rest of us. It’s time to pay back all of those families robbed in so many ways during the 200+ year history of this country. Scoop by scoop we need to make this right.

Hunger is…

This week I’m giving over my blog to some talented writers.

The students at McDonald Elementary School in Seattle has been studying hunger. Here are similes and metaphors from Ms. Roughton’s 3rd graders.

“Hunger is like walking through a desert with no end.” – S.

“Hunger is like a river with no water.” – anonymous

“Hunger is like a stray cat sitting on the streets having no food to eat except litter.” – M.

“Hunger is like when you take off on a plane when you are sick.” – W.

“Hunger is like the rain falling down on a fire.” – W.

“Hunger is like an empty table at dinnertime.” – S.

“Hunger is like a sickness with no end and no medicine.” – G.

“Hunger is like a dinosaur roaring in your stomach.” – O.

“Hunger is like a fruit tree you can’t climb.” – J.

“Hunger is like a fire without a flame.” – E.

“Hunger is an apple out of reach.” – E.

“Hunger is like a hamster that has no home in winter.” – S.

“Hunger is like a hiding place that does not hide you.” – L.

“Hunger is like a school without a cafeteria.” – B.

“Hunger is like a puppy at a puppy mill.” – G.

“Hunger is fear following you around.” — M.

“Hunger is your empty plate you have every day.” – M.

Two Americans

I’ve been on the road doing a lot of school visits. Here are two Americans that I met:

American #1

American

I met a young girl who comes to school every day for breakfast. She doesn’t have access to a shower at home and washes in the school bathroom. Her clothes are dirty, her long hair uncombed.

I was in this girl’s classroom to lead a writing workshop. I gave the kids a choice of writing  either a story that was sticking in their heads or a story from a prompt I provided. This girl chose to do a spin-off picture book, playing with the beginning, ending, and the characters. Her story was first grade brilliance at its best.

Okay, I’ll be honest, I know picture book authors who can’t come up with a first draft that solid (myself included).

One problem that many children face is that they are so focused on basic survival that schoolwork and learning can’t be priorities. We are hardwired that survival always comes first.

But at least until school is out for the summer, this girl has a place to eat breakfast and wash her hair. Her school. This girl has a principal who is actively aware of each challenged child. This girl has a teacher who supports her learning and helps to gather resources as needed.

At least for one year, this girl has the freedom to learn.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. The family may move, change schools. This girl may get a different teacher who cares less. I don’t know.

What I do know is that if this brilliant little girl falls through the cracks, that’s a loss for our country. We will have thrown away the life of a loving and motivated child. No Kickstarter campaign is going to save her. Your tears won’t help her. As a country we need to change the way we do business. We need to pull families out of poverty. But to do that, first we have to admit that there is a problem. Which leads me to…

American #2

American

I met American #2 while speaking to adults. When book clubs, service organizations, and nonprofits invite me to speak, I’m sure they have no idea how weepy I get when I talk about the difficult conditions our children grow up in.

I don’t cry on school visits, even when children tell me very sad stories.

But there is something about talking to fellow Americans about childhood hunger that I find overwhelming. How did we get to this situation where 51% of American children are raised in poverty? How did our country produce this huge learning gap, where my children are practically guaranteed a road to college and other children will not even graduate from high school.

My ‘adult’ speech is about self-deception, how an entire country can tell itself the wrong story. We tell ourselves we’re the greatest country in the world, but how can this be true if we are failing our children?

One group was wonderfully open to my message. But a member of the audience did come up to me afterwards and say, “Well, what about obesity? How could so many American children be poor if there’s an obesity epidemic among children?”

Sigh. I don’t always think on my feet. What I should have done was ask this person why they were asking the question.

Instead, I answered the question at face value. Good food is expensive, and parents make hard choices between soda ($1) and milk ($4), between expensive vegetables or a cheap starch that will make the hunger pains stay away a little bit longer.

As I was driving home I thought about what had prompted the question. We’ve gotten to the point in the United States where it is acceptable to challenge any fact, no matter how solid the study or reputable the source. Climate change, the birthplace of our first African American president, even the moon landing, have all been targeted as fiction.

I’m not quite sure how we got to this point where nothing is real. Where no statement is fact and any fool can question basic math. Let me repeat. 51% of American children are living below the poverty level. Even if I didn’t know the numbers, I see the truth of this when visiting schools and food banks.

In town after town I come across young children who just need a little help to have a decent life.

For us to change the life of American #1, we are going to somehow have to open the eyes of American #2.

Any ideas on how to do that?

Does Having a Bigger House Make You a Better Person?

I have in the past blogged about our attitude towards the poor. This post is about our attitude towards the rich.

Several months ago I met a couple for the first time. Their son had asked my daughter to the prom and I immediately checked out their family through mutual friends. The entire family got rave reviews. When I met the parents I was not disappointed. This was a funny, educated, and socially active couple who volunteered extensively in the community. Exactly the type whose son you might reluctantly agree wouldn’t necessary be a bad person for your daughter to know (still getting used to the whole dating thing here).

The couple asked us over to their house to see the prom “afterparty” setup. At a joint driveway I was confused as to which house had which number. To the right was a small log cabin, in front of me was what we call in our area a “McMansion.” I began walking toward the McMansion when the couple called to me from the back door of the log cabin.

It was about twenty minutes later, as we were in the house talking, that I realized I was disappointed with their house. As soon as I was aware of this feeling I was mortified by my unreasonable reaction. These were two people who had given more back to the community than my husband or I could ever hope to. I won’t even get into the list of their son’s accomplishments. Yet somewhere in the back of my head parasitical thoughts were judging this excellent family based on the size of their home.

Meeting this family made me face my unhealthy attitude towards the rich. Somewhere along the line I have begun to equate wealth with accomplishment and character.

A certain narrow type of accomplishment does create wealth. Most great accomplishments have nothing to do with money. I’m thinking of pastors and teachers here, and also volunteer coaches and food bank workers.

What’s more, character and wealth have no direct causal relationship. There is plenty of historical proof and religious cautions that the opposite may be true.

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I was shocked that I had to remind myself of this basic fact of life: your value as a person is determined by how many people you help and influence in a positive way. Period.

Where was I getting this insane idea that I could equate someone’s character to the size of their house?

Societies, just like books, have themes. If you look at almost any TV show or listen to the radio you see an orchestrated worship of wealth and the rich in this country. I thought I had avoided it, but we humans are pack animals. We pay attention to the attitudes and actions of others and then, even subconsciously, try to fit in.

I am very nervous about discussing this ugly pro-wealth bias that has nested in my head. It is embarrassing and reveals a shallowness that I’d rather not publically disclose.

But I have to discuss this because, unfortunately, I’m not alone.

Our failure to feed children in this country is intrinsically linked to our acceptance of the growing gap between rich and poor.

We are confusing what really matters — character and accomplishment — with wealth. This has allowed unscrupulous individuals to hijack our country. They siphon money from schools, eliminate living-wage jobs, and bankrupt social programs, all to feed the insatiable appetite of the rich.

Twice in the past two years we have cut food stamps, a lifeline not only for children but also for the elderly.

How could we be so stupid?

I can only hope that my daughter’s prom date and his family don’t think less of my daughter because her mother is a ditz.

What if the Poor Aren’t Stupid?

Every once and a while a nice person will come up to me and tell me about the time they volunteered with or helped the poor. Then they will lean towards me and explain why 40% of the kids in Washington State are on full or partial lunch subsidies and why 50% of the kids in the United States are being raised in poverty. “It’s the parents. If only the parents would:

Get a job.
Work harder.
____________ (Put your answer here.)”

The inference is that the poor must be stupid because there are so many ways to not be poor.

My father’s generation had a totally different take on poverty. “There but for the grace of God go I.” I heard my father say these words when he gave to charity. He said them when he talked about someone in our small town who was having a particularly rough year. He even said these words when he gave a job to a convicted murderer who had served his time. Both of my parents made a point of showing me that those I saw struggling were not that different from myself.

Somehow, over the years since I was a child, Americans as a community have lost the ability to see ourselves in the most unfortunate amongst us.

Here’s what I know about being poor.

Poverty is sometimes temporary. A setback in a job, the expense of caring for young children, a divorce, or a sick relative can all set a family back. How many people have you met who’ve lost their house because of medical bills? I’ve met several.

Poverty is also sometimes a way of life, even for those who work 40, 50, or 60 hours a week. Wages are so low in some places, and costs so high, that it impossible to survive without help. Those I know who are struggling to provide for their children work longer hours than I do for less pay.

But here’s the kicker: The poor give a larger percentage of their income to charity than the rich.*

The poor know what it feels like to live on the edge of the abyss. A mother who has struggled in the past to feed her children will pick up an extra can while while shopping to drop off at the food bank. She knows that poverty and hardship can suddenly hit smart hard-working men and women. She knows in her heart that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

The well-off in this country no longer see themselves as being like everyone else. They are convinced that if you are poor you have some fatal flaw.

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So where does this condemnation of the poor come from? My belief is that it comes from fear. It is so much easier to believe that the poor are stupid than that the poor are just like like you and me. If the poor are just like you and me, then we could end up one day not being able to feed our children. There but for the grace of God we would be.

Previous generations of Americans looked poverty straight in the face, recognized it as a problem that we all shared. Medicare, Social Security, Head Start and other social programs were put into place to try to lift up everyone. If you did stumble, if disaster struck, you didn’t have far to fall.

This philosophy helped us become one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

Our generation? We turn our heads away, thinking if we don’t acknowledge the problem it will never affect us. Year by year, the prospects for our children grow dimmer and more and more hungry children show up in our schools.

We can turn this around. Next time you see someone by the side of the road with a sign up, try it. Say to yourself: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

*In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. — The Atlantic Monthly