The Dangers of Speaking Truth to Power

I’ve watched the news out of Annapolis with the kind of slow disbelief that accompanies the witnessing of great tragedy. The deaths of four journalists and a sales assistant in their own workplace frightens me, but more because of its implications for U.S. culture today than because I never believed something like that could happen. History is fraught with the murders of people whose job it was to speak truth to power.

As a journalist in the 90s, I accepted the dangers inherent in the profession. People do not like to have their dirty laundry aired in public. People do not like to have their hypocrisies exposed, or their careers threatened, by the truth that reporters are required by their professions and ethics to deliver to the public.

Journalism is an honorable profession. Journalists gather information, process it, and present it to the public in a way that’s easily understood so that the public can make informed decisions about their lives. Politicians by nature have difficulty with journalists, because politicians by nature must have some secrets. In order for government to move smoothly together, a great deal goes on behind the scenes, and politicians are not eager for their constituents–the voters–to necessarily know about these kinds of machinations.

And so, journalists are attacked, regularly. Because ethical, responsible journalists are trained to tell all sides of a story, keeping out of them as much as possible, journalists themselves are left vulnerable to such attacks because the profession prohibits them from defending themselves in public and in the press. It’s a shame, because the unscrupulous who understand this fact have no difficulty at all exploiting it, labeling the best of our work “fake” to imply that it has no truth at all.

By undercutting truth in this way, the public is duped. By undercutting truth in this way, journalists become even more vulnerable to attack. By undercutting truth in this way, democracy comes under attack.

Journalists’ only defense for their printed words? Truth. Provable in a court of law, if necessary. Accuracy. Solid, cited sources.

One of the best compliments I ever received as a journalist was from a politician who really didn’t care for my work, mostly because it compelled him to think more about the implications of his decisions, I think. But he said, “If that’s what her article said, than it must be right. I might not like what she says but it’s always truth.”

And the truth, in many corners, is a dangerous, dangerous, thing.

I grieve with the staff at the Capitol Gazette today, and I urge caution in those who are quick to lay blame. We do not yet have all the facts. And it would not do to be inaccurate in the retelling. Honor those fallen with truth.

An act of forgetting?

I had lots of material to write about from the weekend, but it’s overshadowed by my reception of several tweets, messages and emails about the vote by the Association for Library Service to Children board to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

The reason cited by the ALSC’s web site was that Wilder’s legacy “includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

I’m concerned by the move for a number of reasons, but ultimately, it’s the board’s decision. As I am neither a librarian or a children’s book author, I don’t actually have a voice in that particular discussion. The position of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association about the subject most accurately reflects my personal thoughts.

I am, however, an historian, and in that light, I’m troubled by the reasoning behind the decision, and what appears to be a rejection of Wilder’s personal history and story. After all, it is a shared history. I fear some might think a rejection of Wilder’s history is a personal rejection, and that perception contributes to the divisiveness already pervasive in U.S. culture today. It is tied into a troubling rupture in civility and a cognitive dissonance that prevents people on both sides of the divide from understanding the others’ perspectives.

This is not a new division. I documented that such a division existed as early as 1960, between a proud rural culture and an increasingly vibrant and diverse urban culture, masked under a presumption of common shared knowledge that quite literally did not–and I dare say still does not–exist. The rural experience is strikingly different from the urban experience, and while members of both cultures presume they are speaking the same language and understanding each other, the truth is they are not. Nor are they likely to, given the current cultural climate.

Wilder’s stories share her personal history with manifest destiny and the pioneer experience, which were obviously and overtly racist. Poor white Americans were actively encouraged with promises of “free” land to displace American Indians from their ancestral homes and steal them. Wilder’s telling of that history, through the lens of a white female child of that time, therefore is also, obviously, racist. But does that mean it’s worth rejecting? Because rejecting that history means leaving a generation in ignorance of a troubled past that we as a culture should actively be investigating, discussing, and where appropriate, making amends for.

Philosopher George Santayana once said, in a oft-repeated and mangled quote, “Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” Pulitzer Prize winner and commentator Leonard Pitts, Jr., has said, and repeats, that we are all racist. And they’re both right.

It’s a shame the ASLC’s standard of inclusiveness doesn’t include Wilder. Forgetting that history may well doom us to repeat it.


Of camping and nostalgia

I spent the weekend camping with my family at Interstate Park, the Wisconsin side, in a brand new Coleman tent that kept us dry despite rampant thunderstorms throughout the area. I was born near there in St. Croix Falls, and Interstate Park features in some of my earliest memories. It’s still a great place to go to meet up with family around the area, and a reasonable distance from where I live now.

And it was hot. And it was wet. And because it was wet, it was dirty. And the mosquitoes were out in full force. I was in a full-fledged snit on Saturday because things were just not as fun as I remembered them being.

However, by Sunday morning, I remembered why I still do, actually, like camping.

My phone died on Saturday and I had no contact with the outside world until Sunday afternoon, because we had no electricity at the camp site. At first, this bothered me, and then I just went with it. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire at my parents’ site, generally caught up on family stories, and listened to each other. Our little girls, ages 2 and 3, had never been camping before. Or slept in a tent before. So they were very, very excited at bedtime. And without electronics, we fell back on the old standby: telling a story. Everybody added to it until our youngest was snoring and her big sister sighed and curled up with her favorite pink plush pillow to sleep.

Thunderstorms raged in the middle of the night, and the rain pattered loudly on the fly over our tent, but we were dry. At 4 a.m., our preschooler woke up with the universal cry of “Gotta pee!” The family as a whole took a trip to the pit toilets (which were clean and dry, honestly; very well kept for pit toilets) across the street from our site in the dark, giggling with flashlights and lots of “Shh!” noises. It took no time at all to get back into our tent, under covers, cuddled up, and back to sleep.

The peace of birdsong on Sunday morning, cuddled up with my kids and my husband, made me smile. The world safely lay beyond the walls of our tent. Not five minutes after we all opened our eyes, we heard my father say quietly, walking his dog to our campsite: “Hello, Amy! Good morning!”

We chorused back, “Good morning, Grandpa!”

He said the magic words: “Bacon’s ready.”

With more giggles, the girls and I left my husband to sleep a little bit more, grabbed our bag of clothes and ran across to my parents’ camper in our pajamas to eat blueberry pancakes and bacon. Because it was still wet outside, and the mosquitoes were snacking on all of us, we ate in the camper. Matt joined us shortly after we arrived, and we feasted.

I remembered, then, many, many mornings like this growing up. The smell of wood smoke and frying bacon still in the air, the giggles and cheerfulness of a family that genuinely enjoys each of its members, the sheer love that fills that space.

My general irritation with the bugs, the dirt, the allergies, and the work of setting up and taking down a camp site faded when my three-year-old said, earnestly, “I go camp again. I like to sleep in the tent!”

Yeah, we’ll probably do this again. And again. Despite the dirt.

We wrapped up our trip with a lunch at one of my favorite childhood spots: The Drive-In in Taylors Falls. They make their own root beer, and a car hop will come right to your car, take your order, and bring it right back to you. I remember going there for root beer floats when I was very small, and later, as a teen, going back when I had my drivers’ license just for the experience of it.

The food–classic burgers and fries for Matt and I, chicken strips and fries for the girls–was fresh and homey and delicious, and the service was great for a Sunday lunch crowd. It nicely finished our trip before we headed back home.

Rhubarb Cake

I asked my mother for her rhubarb cake recipe a few weeks ago so that I could make one with the fresh rhubarb I got from a friend’s garden. She texted me a picture of the recipe, straight out of an old community cookbook that featured one of my favorite cooks, Elsie Hacker. Elsie was one of a number of farm women who hung around my grandma Elsie when I was small, and they were all fantastic cooks.

One of the things I love about the old community cookbooks is the surprise of seeing names I remember from my childhood, of women (and a few men) long gone. I also love looking through the same cookbooks in my mother’s kitchen, or in my own (as I inherited Elsie Mattson’s cookbooks), and seeing the occasional notation in the margins to the left or right of the entry–such as the one in this photo. This one reads “Very Good!” in my mother’s handwriting, next to the stain of either butter or vanilla.

Like the troll I sort of am sometimes, I texted back a picture of the finished, lovely, cinnamon-sugar covered cake. Then, a few minutes later, texted a picture of the cake in the pan, half-gone. Mom texted back:

“Must have been ok!”

“Thanks for the picture. :)”

And so I share with you all, the rhubarb cake recipe. It yields a 9 by 13 pan of deliciousness that’s perfect warm out of the oven, with or without a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Eating it reminds me of my early childhood in the country, and the legacy those amazing cooks left behind. Enjoy.

The Significant People We Meet

At certain points in our lives, we meet people who are meant to be significant to us. Hazel Dicken-Garcia was one of these people for me.

It’s a little known fact that I never intended to go to the University of Minnesota. I was born in Wisconsin, and I was raised with the border rivalry that goes along with having half my large extended family living across the border in Minnesota. Aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides of my family proudly touted their status as alumni of University of Wisconsin, and I learned the lyrics to “On Wisconsin” practically before I could walk. When I was looking at doctoral programs, I didn’t seriously consider going anywhere else to begin with. But when I took the GRE, I was given the opportunity to send my scores to three places for free. On a whim, I chose the University of Minnesota as my third place, behind UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee.

To be clear, I hadn’t even looked at the programs the U of M offered at this point.

I almost didn’t send in an application.

But on the advice of my husband, who is a big fan of not relying on any one path too much, I went ahead and applied to all three schools, and I specifically applied to Communication Arts at UW-Madison, and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the U of M. I wasn’t yet sure what direction my doctoral research would take me. I thoroughly enjoyed and engaged with the cultural studies theory I was learning under Karen Riggs and Mia Consalvo at UW-Milwaukee, and they encouraged me to apply to Comm Arts at Madison to continue that work. Given its proximity to Milwaukee, it was easy for me to visit Madison, meet with faculty, attend a class, and find an apartment. We were ready to sign a lease when I got a phone call from someone introducing herself as Professor Hazel Dicken-Garcia.

We spoke at length about the program at the SJMC and the kinds of things I could study there. She asked me about the research paper I’d submitted as my writing sample (“The Printing Press in London”) and whether I’d considered an appropriate conference venue for it. We had an interesting and engaging discussion, and before the phone call ended, I had agreed to at least visit the University of Minnesota before making a final decision.

So I made the arrangements to leave. I drove up from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities, picking up my mother from Chippewa Falls on the way, and submitted to a tour of campus, discussions with faculty, and exploration of the program.

I met Hazel in person, and within 15 minutes, I knew she was one of my significant people.

We talked more about the printing press paper, the kinds of research I had done to that point, my career as a reporter. We talked about my deep interest in history and how it might work into my budding interest in cultural studies and new media. And she encouraged me to submit my work, identifying several journals and conferences to which it might fit. She especially recommended the American Journalism Historians Association conference. By the end of our meeting, I knew I was meant to go to the Twin Cities and work with Hazel.

I called my husband from my mother’s home on my way back. As I was intending to pick up a lease for the Madison apartment we’d decided upon on my way back, too, he was understandably a bit blindsided by the decision. But one thing about my significant other? He’s always supported my career decisions. Always. And this time was no different.

I spent the night at my mother’s, and went to visit my ailing grandmother, Elsie, the next morning. I made her breakfast, and we visited a long while. She sort of rolled her eyes at the thought of me going to the University of Minnesota, but she appreciated that I’d be closer to my family. It was the last visit I shared with her. She passed away days later.

That grief is tied up with all those decisions that spring–the move to Minnesota, the research direction I took into the history of farm women–but it also ties into how I feel at Hazel’s passing. Hazel encouraged me. She supported my research. She offered critical suggestions and fostered my development as a scholar in ways I could never have imagined at the time I met her–when I knew she was a significant person.

I was one of her last dissertation advisees. The summer that I was writing up my research findings for my dissertation, I also started work on a quilt for Hazel.

Quilting is a tradition in my family. Elsie made us all quilts when we were small, and my mother and aunts picked up the habit, too. My mother helped me pick out the pattern for the quilt I wanted to make for Hazel as a thank you.

We chose an Underground Railroad quilt.

Much of Hazel’s work focuses on Civil War-era history, and the legend of the underground railroad quilt tied in quite nicely. It’s predicated on the notion that supportive families on the Underground Railroad used specific quilt patterns in specific ways to point slaves on their way to freedom. They’d hang a quilt out on the line, freshly washed, unobtrusive and innocuous, but the quilt pattern itself had meaning.

I bought the pattern book and worked my way through making each of the different samples. It drove me absolutely bonkers. It was, in fact, the last quilt I made. I made the patterns in flannels, so they were soft, and my mother quilted it with thick batting. The finished quilt was soft, warm, and perfect for wrapping around someone who was already struggling with her health.

When I gave it to Hazel, she cried. She drew it up around her shoulders and cuddled into it, and she told me she loved it.

Inside that quilt, in every stitch, I tried to show how I loved and appreciated her as a mentor, a friend, and a significant person in my life.

I would not be the scholar, or the person, I am today without her influence.

Underground Railroad quilts