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Browsing Category "Diversity"
11 Jul
2017

The Lone Ranger was Black*

Was the Lone Ranger modeled after Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. deputy marshal who worked thirty-two years in the Arkansas and Oklahoma territories in the late 1800’s?  He may have been.

Lone Ranger, Tonto

“The Lone Ranger” classic TV and radio shows embedded this image of the character (with Tonto) into American lore.

History Is Biased

“The Lone Ranger was Black: Reintegrating Minority Viewpoints into Historical Fiction.” This intriguing title of one of the sessions offered at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland drew me in.  The session addressed the issue of bias in our history and the impact of that bias on authors of historical fiction.  Today we no longer view history as “the truth” but rather a story told through the lens of the teller.  Did you love the Lone Ranger when you were growing up?  I did.  We assumed he was a courageous (and white) lawman.  That’s how the story was told.

Readers of historical fiction express their fondness for this genre because they like a particular historical period and enjoy learning from fiction set in an historical context.  Readers also say they want accurate history in the stories they read.  Historical fiction writers have a responsibility to the historical record.  But what record?

American history, Black history, buffalo soldiers

Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry or the 9th Cavalry, while stationed at Yosemite National Park. ca. 1899 (Shutterstock).

Finding Alternative Viewpoints

A key question for authors of historical fiction is how to tell stories and develop characters with lives extremely different from their own given the bias of historical sources.  How do we find alternative viewpoints?  How can we do justice to the painful experiences of non-dominant characters in our stories?

Most of us have heard the story of Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  From the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne perspective, they believed they were betrayed because their treaty rights were ignored after gold was discovered on native lands.  White Americans saw the Indians as wild and bloodthirsty and stubbornly refusing to move to the reservation.  For many of us, we learned only the white American history version growing up.

Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger

When we watched and admired the Lone Ranger as children we accepted how he was portrayed.  Yet, he probably was based on the real-life story of Bass Reeves.  Reeves, a former slave, whose exploits were famous, was imposing at 6’2”.  The first black lawman west of the Mississippi, he cut a striking figure on his large gray (almost white) horse, while wearing his trademark black hat and twin .45 Colt Peacemakers cross-draw style. He was never touched by a bullet although he brought in 3000 criminals alive and 14 dead, killed in self-defense.  Reeves was called the “Indomitable Marshall.”  He left silver dollars as his calling card.  Other similarities to the Lone Ranger included his friendship and knowledge of Native American tribes and languages and his use of disguises to capture those he pursued.  The racism in our culture probably prevented the Lone Ranger hero from being portrayed as a black lawman.

Lone Ranger, Bass Reeves

“Who WAS that Masked Man?” Was it Bass Reeves?

The historical narrative is actually composed of multiple narratives.  We have often learned only one.  Most of the stories about homesteaders on the prairie who risked their lives and battled extreme heat and white-out blizzard conditions portray them as white.  In doing the research for my historical novel, “Sarah’s Secret,” I discovered a little-known town in Kansas called Nicodemus which drew freed slaves to homestead in the surrounding area after the Civil War.

Offering an Opposing Voice

As writers of historical fiction, we have an obligation to our readers to offer an accurate portrayal of both our characters and the historical context.  Our discussion in this conference session emphasized the importance of deep knowledge and experience of the culture in which our story is set as well as a recognition of the historical biases of the sources we are using.  This is especially important if the writer is writing in a cultural context other than her own.

Writing historical fiction provides us an opportunity to balance the bias of history by including an opposing voice of the non-dominant group in the story.  Since my protagonist, Sarah was traveling North by wagon through Kansas to return to Nebraska and her family, I thought it would add interest to the story to describe Sarah and her children unexpectedly encountering a black family in the middle of Kansas living near Nicodemus.

Sarah follows a narrow path with her seriously ill daughter to find help.  She discovers a welcoming family descended from former slaves who willingly share their modest home for several days while Sarah nurses her daughter back to health.  Her sons have fun with the son of the family. This was also an opportunity to include an opposing voice to traditional bias when Sarah tells her concerned son stories about her own and her father’s rejection of slavery, support for the Union in the Civil War and her family’s generosity toward “Negro” families when she was a child.

Have you been surprised when you learned a different narrative from the “official record?” Tell us about it.

*Thanks to J. James Cotter for leading the session “The Lone Ranger was Black: Reintegrating Minority Viewpoints into Historical Fiction” at the Historical Novel Society Conference, June 2017

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28 Mar
2017

Women’s History Month: Sarah and Grandma’s Inspiration  

“Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.” 

Myra Pollack Sadker*

Women's History Month

Grandma’s Inspiration

My grandmother, Ellen Russell Scott, inspired and motivated me as I was growing up. She was in constant pain from rheumatoid arthritis, yet she seldom complained. She shared a smile with everyone she encountered. As a former teacher, Ellen valued education and encouraged me to get good grades and do the best I could.

I agree with the National Women’s History Project, (NWHP) that “We draw strength and inspiration from those who came before us.” My hope in writing a story based on Ellen’s life, “Sarah’s Secret: A Western Tale of Betrayal and Forgiveness,” was that others would find inspiration in her courage and her strength.

Sarah

The character of Sarah is devastated by the loss of her husband Sam, as I imagined Ellen must have been when my grandfather H.D. Scott died leaving her a widow with five children. Here is an excerpt from the book.

Immediately after his death, she steps outside…

”I felt myself shiver.  The wind was unusually still for New Mexico, but the air was crisp and cold. I went back inside. I wanted to feel the heat from the fire in the stove. I wanted to be warm, really warm.  I sat down in my rocking chair rocking slowly. The coldness inside moved up my back and tingled at the nape of my neck….

“’I’m, a widow.’ I said aloud. I was alone, completely responsible for the children, not just for a few weeks or the winter season until Sam returned. I felt cold, flat. I opened my Bible, hoping for solace. I began to survey the landscape of my mind, much as I had the landscape outside. My mind was a closed book with all the memories of my life with Sam shut away.  ‘I am alone’…”

But Sarah, like many women alone today, pulls herself together, finds the courage and fortitude to take her five children back to Nebraska.

Sarah Finds Strength and Confidence

The back story of Sam, a fictional character, is based only on limited information about my grandfather, a man not as Sarah experienced him nor what the reader expects. Sarah must face the betrayal of her trusted husband. Like many women who face adversity, Sarah finds through the humiliation of betrayal and her struggle to hold her family together, the strength and confidence within herself to take a position as the first woman school superintendent in the state of Nebraska.

Women’s History Overlooked

Without knowing about the women in our history or in our family stories we lose the opportunity to find role models, be inspired and dream about our future. As we know, women in our diverse American cultures are overlooked in mainstream history. Yet, as the NWHP website states, “they are part of our story, and a truly balanced and inclusive history recognizes how important women have always been in American society.”

I am grateful to the National Women’s History Project founded over 30 years ago in Santa Rosa, CA. NWHP serves as a catalyst, a leader and a resource in promoting women and their role in our American history. In 1978, they initiated a week of celebration of “Women’s History.” Congress ultimately declared March as Women’s History Month in 1987. This month is in recognition of the importance of women in our history. A balanced and inclusive history must not make the mistake of ignoring the critical role and contribution of women.

The Power of History and Inspiration

Knowing the stories of women from our own families, acknowledging the contributions of women in our cultural heritage and giving recognition to the historical achievement of the women overlooked in our history books, helps us know who we are. Then we can feel the power of inspiration and ignite our dreams.

What stories do you know about the women in your family history? What women in your life have inspired and motivated you?


*Quoted on the website of the National Women’s History Project.

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Who Are Your Family Role Models and Inspiration?

In recognition of International Women’s Day, I honor my grandmothers and my aunts who have inspired me  and served as significant role models.

Schoolhouse, Old West, Plains

 

Years ago, one of my favorite aunts came for a visit when I was in my mid-thirties experiencing a low point in my life.  She gave a life-long gift by reminding me of the role models I had in the strong women in my family.  It was from them, I could always find inspiration and direction.

Both of my grandmothers had been school teachers.  My paternal grandmother, Ellen, also became a school superintendent.  Ellen was a great cheerleader and encouraged me to succeed in school, get good grades and go to college.  My maternal grandmother, Grace, was disappointed that she had to give up teaching school to become a farmer’s wife.  But she continued to read the Atlantic Monthly and other books and periodicals.  She wrote letters about what she read and shared her opinions about the news and politics in letters to her daughters.

My aunt pointed out that both Ellen and Grace had significant challenges in their lives: Grace, reluctantly left school teaching which she loved to manage her husband’s family farm which she resented.  She worked hard to survive the depression and the dust bowl.  Ellen was left a widow when her youngest of five children was a few months old.

Ellen Scott, grandmother,

Ellen Scott, my grandmother, a teacher, and a strong role model.

Ellen, in particular has been an inspiration to me.  I am currently writing a fictionalized story of her life.  As a widow without a means of support, Ellen applied for widows benefits.  The Government Agent who came in April of 1912 to interview her in person, filed a sensitive descriptive report, (which I recovered from the National Archives).  She was living in a tent south of Thedford, Nebraska where she had filed a land claim.  He reports that

“she hopes to establish a home for herself and children; but it looks like a most hazardous undertaking as she is practically an invalid because of rheumatism (sic), and her children are undersized puny looking little fellows, and they are more than a mile from the nearest water….In their present desolate surroundings their condition is pitiable in the extreme.”

This was the occasion when she learned that her husband had a former wife and family.  The agent describes,

“until I informed her of the fact, claimant declares she had no knowledge of the existence of a former wife.  Her grief and tears where convincing of the truth.  She begged me not to tell anyone in her home neighborhood.”

This helps explain why no one in the family knew about a prior family.  Ellen shared no information about him with her children.  Despite her crippling rheumatoid arthritis, she pulled herself together; returned to teaching school; became a school superintendent; and raised her family.  See my blog series, “A Journey to Fiction” on my genealogical journey to learn about my paternal grandparents.

Both Grace and Ellen were also models of strength, resilience and accomplishment for their daughters.  All five of my aunts completed college educations at a time when the lack of financial resources and societies’ cultural norms were major deterrents. Yet, they were persistent and resourceful.  They found work to pay their way.  Between the first wave of feminism and the second, during my young adulthood, all these women had successful careers and raised a family.  They worked hard and overcame many obstacles.  To me they were pillars of strength and fortitude.  They were role models of how meet challenges and find a satisfying life.

These seven women have been my inspiration and my role models.  I honor and pay tribute to them on International Women’s Day.

Who are the women role models in your family?  How have they influenced and inspired you?   Are there other strong women who have served as role models and inspired you?

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6 Feb
2014

Coming Out as “Old”

dreamstime_xs_36095507 sign

The young woman got up and offered me a seat.  The signs behind her state that the front seats on the commuter train are reserved for seniors and others with disabilities.  But not everyone pays

I have not made any effort to hide my age as I advanced through middle age and into that category we refer to as “senior” and now approaching “old”.  I have appreciated the privileges of being senior such as reduce price fares on public transportation and at the movies.  At the same time, when I look in the mirror, I reluctantly accept my changing appearance with graying hair, the permanent creases in my face and the wrinkling skin.  Although I am fortunately healthy, my body is slowing down.  I don’t have the energy I used to have to carry a full work load, give attention to my family and engage in social and volunteer activities.  But I am not willing to hide my age.  Indeed, I have “come out” publicly as I turned seventy writing “Seven Thoughts of Gratitude on Turning 70” and publishing an essay “Writing My First Novel at 70” in the new book “Seventy Things to Do When You Turn 70” edited by Ronnie Sellers and Mark Chimsky. attention to them.  And, not all seniors want to admit their age or infirmities.  I sat down gratefully not wanting to try to balance myself and my bags on the lurching train.

IMG_5854

This public “coming out” has shocked some of my friends who refuse to reveal their age.  Their refusal reminds me of my aunt who lied about her age until she was well into her eighties, even though we knew how old she was.  Why are we not as proud to proclaim our age at 55, 60 or 70 as we were when we turned 12, 16 or 21?  I have written elsewhere about the impact of ageism and an uncaring society on its elders.   The discrimination in the workplace, caricatures in the media and the political environment that threatens Social Security and Medicate tells us that we are not valued as now vulnerable seniors who have contributed to our communities and our society.  We absorb those beliefs into our own mental models and we judge ourselves as unimportant and worthless as we get “old”.

Instead, we need a sense of purpose, a way of contributing to our communities, engaging with others in activities that give us meaning and an attitude of appreciation for the wisdom of our experience, for the pleasure of the present moment and for the opportunities the future can bring us.  Coming out as a vital, healthy, active senior enables us to counter the images we carry of elderly being synonymous with decline, deterioration and despair.

This coming out as a senior or as “old”, is similar, for me, to coming out as a lesbian.  Rejecting and overcoming the societal mental models of aging is analogous to rejecting and overcoming the societal judgment of homosexuality.  The wisdom of increasing acceptance from others by coming out has been a proven benefit in the progress of the LGBT movement.  I believe coming out as a senior and admitting my age openly will also benefit all of us in finding more acknowledgement and appreciation of  the value and wisdom of our life’s contribution.

This blog was published in The Transition Network newsletter in November of 2013, generating unprecedented  response.  You can see the responses in the TTN January Newsletter.
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