Still Searching

Steinbeck is never quite able to bring himself to say that he was often disgusted by what he saw on his journey, but the reader is left with that impression. Indeed, one puts down this book aware only of how prophetic it really was, and how America continues to wrestle with the problems raised in its pages. –Jay Parini

My summer book this year was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie In Search of America. I meandered through the memoir over several months, savoring a chapter or two before bed in between my own travels and tribulations.

Travels With Charlie is one of Steinbeck’s most popular books, so I’ll refrain from writing a detailed overview of his journey. Instead, I’ll say that on the whole, I thought it was a delightfully charming story of a writer and his dog on an Epic Road Trip across these United States at the turn of the 1960s.

Two things stuck with me about Steinbeck’s memoir: 1) Steinbeck seemed very much ill at ease with the growing conformity of American culture in the ’50s and ’60s; 2) that man sure did love his poodle.

John Steinbeck and his french poodle, Charlie
That man and his poodle (©Bettmann/CORBIS)

Towards the end of their journey, Steinbeck and Charlie arrive in the South. Steinbeck admits that he has not been looking forward to this leg of the trip: “I am not drawn to pain and violence,” he writes, acknowledging the bitter fight over desegregation, yet Steinbeck knows that he must see this pain and violence first hand if he is to find an answer to his guiding question of “what are Americans like” in the year 1960. Steinbeck continues: “And the South being a limb of the nation, its pain spreads out to all America.”

To a certain extent, this seems true of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, given how Selma and Montgomery lead to demonstrations across the country and eventually to the iconic March on Washington. Conventional wisdom holds that the South was the heart of racism in this country, and that ending segregation there would eventually lead to a land of equal opportunity.

Trouble is, racism was never just a Southern problem.

Given the headlines, it’s safe to say that race, racial prejudice, and racism remain hot-button topics in America in 2015. In the past year, Americans have felt the pain of the Heartland, of the North, of the South, of the Border States, of the Lone-Star State, and even the pain of the renowned progressive Pacific Northwest.

All of these headlines share the common threads pain, grief, and above all frustration. If you’ll forgive a generalization here, people of color are tired of living under institutional racism. They are tired of black men being six times more likely to be arrested than white non-Hispanic males. They are tired of 10% more black households than white households living below the poverty line. They are tired of living in the aftermath of nearly two centuries of laws and ordinances that unarguably discriminated against people of color.

Note that two of those hyperlink citations in that last paragraph were from official US federal statistics, namely the Bureau of Justice and the 2010 Census.

Now, this is a complicated sociological issue—one that I am hardly qualified to explain. I’ve tried to keep my personal biases out of this post as much as possible, sticking only to personal observation (“they are tired”) and hard statistics (anything with a number). We can debate the causes and solutions for these numbers until we’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that they’re there.

Fifty years past the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, and we still do not live in a country where blacks and whites are treated as equal. If we did, those numbers would be roughly the same.

At this point, an unapologetic racist might bring up these numbers as evidence that black folks are inherently inferior to white folks. I don’t buy that for a second.

Neither did Steinbeck.

In Travels with Charlie, Steinbeck tells the story of the Coopers, a “Negro family” (remember, this was the 1960s—that word was acceptable then) that lived in his hometown of Salinas, California. Mr. Cooper ran a successful trucking business, and Mrs. Cooper was a mother hen of sorts for the neighborhood kids: “good for a piece of gingerbread anytime we wanted to put the hustle to her.” Their three kids were the pride of the town: the eldest son was a star athlete, the middle son was the smartest kid in his grade, and the youngest “was all smiles.”

“Beyond this giftedness,” Steinbeck writes, “the Cooper boys were my friends.”

Steinbeck goes on to say that if anyone had spoken to him with horror at the thought of a black man marrying a white woman, he, Steinbeck, would have laughed, because it seemed obvious to him that the Cooper boys were too close to his family to want to marry his sisters.

During his visit to the South, Steinbeck thinks back to the Coopers and his own experiences with race. He writes:

I realize now that there was something else about the Coopers that set them apart from other Negroes I have seen and met since. Because they were not hurt or insulted, they were not defensive or combative. Because their dignity was intact, they had no need to be overbearing, and because the Cooper boys had never heard that they were inferior, their minds could grow to their true limits.

That, I think, more than anything else, is critical. If you tell a child that s/he is “less than”—if you tell a girl that she’s “not smart enough” to become an engineer or a gay kid that he is
an abomination” or a non-gender-conforming child that zie is “a freak” or a young black man that he’s “a thug who will never succeed in life”—it is going to mess that kid up.

As reluctant as I am to buy into the whole “you can be anything you want to be when you grow up” mantra,* I think it’s something that kids need to hear.

We don’t need to tell kids that they’re “special.” We need to tell them that they’re normal.

We need to tell them that no matter what life throws at them, no matter how hard it gets or how much it sucks, they are strong enough to succeed.

Steinbeck’s story of the Coopers struck home for me, because it is very much a reflection of my own formative experiences with race.

As I’ve written before, I did not grow up in a part of the country that you might call “ethnically diverse.” When I was in junior high, there was exactly one black student in the entire school district,* and her name was Chelsea Watts.

Chelsea Watts was a badass. She was lightning smart, she was an all-state choir singer, she was a member of the National Honors Society, and she earned the title of Montana Junior Miss in 2003. She also starred in several high school theater productions, which I suppose isn’t that much of a compliment, but when I was twelve, the high school theater program seemed like Broadway.

She was pretty much my hero.

In my eyes, Chelsea Watts was normal. She was part of the same group of overachieving high school seniors that I one day hoped to join.

Of course, my family moved before that could happen, and then I became a teenage slacker, but that’s a story for another day.

Point is, in my mind, black folks were just as capable of excelling as white folks. It wasn’t until college that I started to recognize how that wasn’t always the case. Under all the statistics, woven into the fabric of all of the stories of hardship in America, I realized that society itself tells a story: white folks in general, white men in particular, are likely to succeed. They were born ready to win the American Dream. If they don’t, they are failures.

As for everyone else? Meh. They’ll accept what they can get. As for the few who manage to “break out” of the box society builds for them, well, we’ll treat them as exceptions–or better yet: as proof that the American Dream is available for everyone.

That story is old. It is tired. It no longer holds up under scrutiny.

It’s time for a new story.

We need institutions that defend the rights of every individual, regardless of the color of their skin. We need institutions that encourage every child to follow their passions, regardless hard it may be for them to get there.

We need more stories like Tiffany Aching, the young girl who decided to be a witch even though she was born to raise sheep and make cheese.*

But most of all, we need to keep searching. Every one of us needs to find our own answer to the question of “what Americans are like.” We need to change not only our institutions, but our actions, our biases, and above all else, our hearts.

And until then, until we can learn to extend compassion to every one of our neighbors, our search for “what Americans are like” will continue.

The other day, I saw a link to Mr. Roger’s final speech on my Twitter feed. Fred Rogers defined compassion for generations of American children, including me. In his show, he taught children not to be afraid of people who are different, and he encouraged children to believe in their dreams.

The world needs more people like Fred Rogers.

In a country so often divided by prejudice and pessimism, he gave all children a radical, counter-cultural message:

I like you just the way you are.


Postscript: In researching this essay, I learned that Chelsea Watts is now an actress living in New York. She even has her own website and IMDB page!

Way to go, Chelsea! I, for one, am looking forward to your next role.

*In a nutshell: my basic problem with this mantra on its own is that it ignores aptitude, access, socioeconomic status, and skill—all of which can, I think, be compensated for to some degree, but it takes a lot of hard work, determination, assistance, and luck.

Hence the concept of “privilege”—or, to put it in nerd-friendly language, some players get to start life on Easy Mode by default and their choices affect future difficulty levels. Others don’t have that option: they have to start life on Overkill Mode.

* That I knew of. There may have been others, but I don’t remember.

* Did you seriously expect me to miss an opportunity to give a shout-out to my favorite Discworld character on the day her final book was released in the United States?