Turning I into We: Great Suffering Leads to Great Change

The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simple—the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times. ~John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—”We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. ~John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

In his 40s, my husband has discovered the great American novels.

We are big fans of the library, particularly for our bookworm 8-year-old son, and on a recent trip to the library my husband picked up The Great Gatsby for himself. One night he looked up from it and with a somewhat bewildered expression said This is really good.

It is, I replied.

He told me that one paragraph left him amazed. How did Fitzgerald think up that description? How did he find those words? A good question. It’s the same question you’d ask Monet or Rembrandt or Van Gogh – how did you think to use that color, that brush, that stroke?

There are other novels like that, you know. I said. You probably read them in high school. You read Grapes of Wrath, right?

He shrugged. (He was not the best student in high school.)

And, because my copy was donated long ago, so began my online search for the full text of Chapter 14 of the Grapes of Wrath.

I must have been 16 years old when I read that chapter the first time. It’s just a few pages, really. Less than 1,000 words. No plot, no story – an essay tucked into a novel about inequality and dignity and fortitude.

But even then – with just 16 years under my belt – I recognized the power of those words. I remember my eyes welling up in Miss McCoy’s class as I read them. I can smell and see that moment in that room now, nearly 30 years later.

I read and re-read and re-read that chapter again and again until I had almost memorized it: THE WESTERN LAND, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, striking at the immediate thing…

Whether you consider it a chapter, an essay, a poem – however you categorize it, the central core is “need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action.” The need of one man multiplied a million times, and shared a million more, creates the only power that will cause the great owners to shudder…. because it leads to massive, systemic change.

I found the chapter for my husband, and before giving it to him I read it again myself – then again, and again, and again. And again, just like 30 years ago, my eyes welled up with the power of it all.

The Grapes of Wrath was written in 1939, but it could have been written in present day. Some things are constant.

Great owners. Great inequality. Great poverty. Great suffering.

And the need for great owners to keep the people from seeing that their suffering is collective, no matter what flavor that suffering might be.

That’s why Grapes of Wrath is one of the most frequently banned books, even today. The threat to so-called “American Individualism” is too great. The call to collective action is too inspiring, too moving, too … close for comfort.

We’ve seen over the past few months a great rejoining and restructuring. Once-separate movements are intermingling, recognizing the shared hunger between them. It’s not just leaders of those movements that are encouraging that shift.

It’s happening organically.

Maybe that’s because this virus is not all that unlike the poverty that struck Americans during the Great Depression – which led huge swaths of the country to see they had more in common than in opposition. Poverty was their common enemy. Leaders at the time didn’t do enough to stop its advance – to stop the suffering.

Now, this virus is our common enemy. And the leaders today aren’t doing enough to stop it its advance – to stop the suffering.

Like the depression, this virus has turned many more “I’s” into “We’s”.

I don’t think we’re seeing the end of it. I think it’s the beginning.

And, once again, you can see the nervousness under the beginning change.

Nervous, like horses before the storm.

Let’s get to work.

P.S. If you haven’t read Chapter 14 in a while, scroll to the bottom after the actions to see the full text. You won’t be disappointed.

Actions for the Week of July 14, 2020

Attend a Virtual Event with New York Times Bestselling Author, Ibram X. Kendi

Sign up to join Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” for a virtual event on July 20th. Kendi is a 2019 Guggenheim fellow and a No. 1 New York Times bestselling author. Dr. Charlene M. Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College, will join Kendi for the conversation, which promises to be informative and timely. Dr. Dukes is the first African-American woman to serve as president of Prince George’s Community College and an activist with over 30 years of experience. Together, Dr. Dukes and Kendi will discuss the content of Kendi’s book and the current conversation about race in America. 

Learning about history, justice, and racism is a never-ending process. This is a great opportunity to challenge and grow your understanding with the help of brilliant thinkers and activists. Sign up here. The free event will stream live on 4 digital platforms!

Call Betsy DeVos for School Safety

On Sunday, Besty DeVos, Secretary of Education, refused to agree that schools should follow CDC public health recommendations if reopening in the fall. DeVos even claimed, “There is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them.” Even when pressed, she avoided explicitly answering questions about implementing remote learning back-up plans in situations of regional hotspots. Students, staff, and teachers are all at high risk of contracting and spreading COVID unless health and safety protocols are followed strictly by school districts. If conducting in-person classes, schools need to follow guidelines recommended by medical professionals and public health officials. Last week President Trump called for the CDC to loosen the guidelines for schools, but the CDC director announced there are no plans to alter the recommendations: they are that important. DeVos is jeopardizing the safety of our educators and students. 

Today, contact the Department of Education and let them know that you believe the agency should put their full support behind the CDC school reopening recommendations. You can reach the Department of Education on the phone (1-800-872-5327, press 3), or by email at betsy.devos@ed.gov. In your message, ask that they publicly announce support for the CDC school reopening recommendations. These recommendations should be wildly published with the help of the Department of Education. The department should also help schools create and share innovative safety ideas, emergency plans, and remote-based curricula. The CDC recommendations are based on science and data, and will help communities contain the spread of the coronavirus. 

Spread the Word About the BREATHE Act

Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib announced their support for a new bill, the BREATHE Act, last week. The BREATHE Act originates from the work of activists at the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives. The bill has four sections: divesting funds from federal incarceration systems and police, and ending criminal-legal system harms; investing in community safety through funding incentives; investing in healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities; and, holding officials accountable and enhancing self-determination of Black folks. The bill tackles criminal justice reform from several angles and I highly recommend learning more about it through this informative bill summary

The bill has not been formally announced in Congress yet, but there are still many ways you can help. Right now, the Electoral Justice Project is looking for individuals willing to spread the word about the BREATHE Act and galvanize interest in their communities. You can share information about the BREATHE Act on social media (they have text and graphics ready for your use!), host a virtual teach-in, and get involved in other creative ways. Sign up to be a community co-sponsor of the bill here. You’ll then receive information via an email on ways you can help promote this bill!

Advocating for Voting Rights Expansion 

Our friends at Americans of Conscience have created a list of 22 (!) actions we can do during the month of July to support voter expansion and empowerment. I’m going to try to tackle as many of these actions as possible in the next three weeks and I encourage you to do the same. This week I’m going to work on Action 5, Action 12, and Action 13. 

Action 5: Encourage your election officials to seek out more poll workers. 

Not enough poll workers can mean longer lines, which is discouraging to voters. This action involves one call to your local Board of Elections

Action 12: Advocate for safe polling places for Native Americans.

Native Americans are too often excluded from conversations about accessible voting. We need to work for creative ways to expand voting access to all communities, particularly when polling places are closing because of COVID. This action asks you to call your House Representative and demand their support of H.R. 1694.

Action 13: Prevent online voter suppression.

You can complete this action while you’re on the phone with your House Representative’s office for Action 12! Ask your Representative to support H.R. 2592, the Honest Ads Act, that prevents the spread of false voting-related information online. 
All information on how to complete these actions is on the Americans of Conscience website. They guide you through the exact steps – from who to dial, to what to say! Can you commit to three actions this week?

And now, as promised:

John Steinbeck
“Chapter 14 (The Grapes of Wrath)”

THE WESTERN LAND, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change. The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simple—the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times. The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man — when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it. This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live—for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live—for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know—fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.

THE WESTERN STATES nervous under the beginning change. Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, California. A single family moved from the land. Pa borrowed money from the bank, and now the bank wants the land. The land company—that’s the bank when it has land—wants tractors, not families on the land. Is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong?

If this tractor were ours it would be good—not mine, but ours. If our tractor turned the long furrows of our land, it would be good. Not my land, but ours. We could love that tractor then as we have loved this land when it was ours. But this tractor does two things—it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this.

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—”We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours.

The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.”

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”

The Western States are nervous under the beginning change. Need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action. A half-million people moving over the country; a million more, restive to move; ten million more feeling the first nervousness. And tractors turning the multiple furrows in the vacant land.

###

WHEW! GO TEAM!

P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every e-mail. (Really! I really do!) We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

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