My Dusty Memory Bowl

As children, we could make my baby brother cry simply by chanting the words, “Okie! Okie! Okie!” Isn’t it amazing how prejudice is learned so innocently and so early? We loved our brother but it made us feel more powerful when we teased him.

Nowadays, that kind of “naming” cruelty is called bullying and it is usually aimed at people of color. In the  decade of the Dust Bowl, desperate migrants to California were mostly blonde and blue eyed.

Watching the The Dust Bowl  documentary was fascinating for all four of us kids since we were part of that great exodus from the mid-west to the promised land. We were very young (7,6,4,and 1) when we left Oklahoma in 1939. Now we are all in our seventies and times have changed.

The Dust Bowl story was peripheral to our personal stories. My parents were not farmers although they were both born in a small Missouri town and most of their neighbors did farm.My mother’s family were the richest people in that little town and they lost everything in the Depression. My Dad was simply travelling through and the two of them continued travelling after the wedding in 1932.

Like most immigrants, they didn’t talk much about their past. I’ve never been clear about how they survived the Depression. I do know they moved a lot. The four towns – McAllen TX, Waco TX, Beaumont TX and Tulsa OK – where their four kids were born were just the tip of the iceberg.

In 1939 they piled their four kids, and my Uncle Bob in the car and drove to the land of orange trees and hope. I remember Hoover Dam but everything else is second hand. The younger kids remember nothing.

My Dad had lived in California for part of his high school years and really wanted to return. My mother wanted to be with my Dad. My handsome young uncle wanted to be a movie star.

Money was always an anxious subterranean subject so I had no idea where it came from. I do know we lived in a small house and there was enough food. I also know my uncle worked as a singing waiter in a Pasadena Hotel because we heard him and the others sing on the radio every Friday night.

If my family talked about the more destitute migrants, I don’t remember it. Were the attempts to block indigent migrants from entering the state mentioned? My memories are all mystery. For some reason, I knew that being an Okie was bad. It took me a long time to work through childhood shame and money issues.

When World War Two started, my Dad went to work as a lathe operator in a machine shop. My mother sold dresses. My uncle was drafted and fought in the South Pacific for four years.

My real memories begin when I was in sixth grade. We lived in a government housing project. Most of our neighbors were fellow immigrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Mississippi. My mother felt she was far above her neighbors and, although she was an open-hearted woman, she worried about our grammar and manners.

I grew up thinking California was the best place in the world and everyone who had good sense lived here. I still hold some of that prejudice, although I now have wider experience to back it up. California really is the land of possibility.

When I watched Ken Burn’s The Dust Bowl, I enjoyed the retrospective. I learned quite a bit about those days and it helped me review some of my old feelings. If you get a chance, I recommend it because it was an excellent work of art.

It also allowed me to look at the shame I felt as a kid about not being a California Native. I thought about where prejudice comes from and why, in this day and age, people still cover their feelings of inadequacy by seeing  the “other” as wrong or dangerous. We know that bullies are full of negative beliefs about themselves whether it is  seven year old taunting a one year old or Hitler hating the Jews.

Of course, it is a long way from simple school yard pre-judgment and bullying to out-and-out war but the line from one to the other is unbroken. The first step in any war is to see the opponent as “the other”. We must despise the enemy so we create distance by calling them  names like Okie.

The questions are not, “Why are people cruel to each other?” or, “Why is there war?”. The question is, “How do we outgrow the shame, fear, and suspicion that creates the conflict?” Whether it is a move to block the gates to California or the current mid-East border bombs, conflict can be prevented.  The first step in healing conflict is nearly always to stop looking at people on the other side of the border as “different” and “less than.”

It is not enough for you and I to condemn cruelty and war. We must find ways to establish love and peace. Whether it is global or local, our consciousness of peace and possibility is already a help. Holding the light of wisdom high is a help to all people.

One step toward opening hearts and minds up locally is to bring the arts back into the schools. Art education helps more than you can imagine even if it cannot be measured on achievement tests. I  suggest we each speak up for the importance of the arts in the schools.

I believe the arts serve an important function – they illustrate our commonalty as humans. Although we are unique, we are also universally one with God. The arts teach this better than anything. That’s what drives me nuts about the cuts in school arts programs.

Long before I found Science of Mind, it was the arts that opened my mind and heart in a very powerful way. The arts helped me feel something in common with others and also helped me dissolve the shame and prejudice about who I was and where I came from.

As a former high school teacher, I know this is a nearly-universal experience. It is so amazing to a young person who has learned to detest her grandmother’s quilts to see very similar quilts on the museum wall.

My first artistic discoveries from the Depression years were Dorthea Lange photographs in the  books I found in the in the 7th grade library. The dignity and beauty of people who travelled toward the Promised Land helped me see my past in a new way.  The books that came out of “hard times” of the Depression made me see that those hillbillies my mother feared were real people with real stories.

The music of the depression years is the backbone of our American musical heritage. Whether it is gospel, blues, bluegrass or just plain country, it is great. We are still singing many of the songs in church. Some of us learned them in elementary school. If you don’t know the music of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly or Hank Williams, you should check it out. It lives!

I love the way art helps us explore our own beauty and self-worth at the same time we discover our love for our neighbor.  Today’s school children deserve to explore the richness of their cultural heritage and to learn about other peoples special artistry.

Write to your local school officials and to your State Boards of Education. Let your views be known. Technology and facts are important. There is no conflict and the arts are what make us human. Keep the faith!

Ask Yourself

What were my first experiences with art?

Do I agree that art programs are  really important?

Is there anything I’d like to do about that?

What artistic expressions delight me these days?