Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Passing of Howard Zinn

If you haven’t yet heard, Howard Zinn passed away yesterday. Zinn is one of a small handful of people who I can without doubt say has played a huge role in my life, which is pretty incredible because I’m certain there are about a million other people who can say the same thing.

When I was on the cusp of failing high school, I first came across A People’s History. I still remember how quickly I tore through the entire book (and it’s a long book), and how this helped redefine history for me as something that was both fascinating and subversive. As Clara Sparks once said, “The long memory is the most radical idea in America.”

History before had been mind-numbingly dull, so I skipped most classes (I had it last period) to instead go surfing. But after high school I got a job delivering pizza for Round Table, and would spend my down time reading history books in a booth while sucking down soda. I read a lot of Howard Zinn at Round Table, and Zinn led me to many other historians and journalists…and, well, that ball has kept rolling.

Then, when I was searching around for a publisher for my book about organizing, Calling All Radicals, I heard back from Howie Zinn–as his friends called him–who offered very kind words and wrote a great blurb for the book. That blurb helped me land an agent, which helped me get published, which got me in no small measure to where I am today.

As it happens, Howard Zinn makes an appearance in Working in the Shadows. While I was working delivery in New York, there was an event in Manhattan in honor of Studs Terkel, who had just passed. It was an early evening event on a Sunday, and though I was late for work I stuck around for Zinn. To hear Zinn speak was to realize that being left-wing didn’t have to mean being self-righteous, or grating, or off-putting. Zinn was himself, light-hearted but also serious, modest yet clearly wise. I’m sure many people will write about Zinn in the days and weeks to come, and while I mourn his passing I also look forward to reading these accounts. I also look forward to someday telling my own kid about this skinny man with wispy white hair, and handing over a dogeared copy of A People’s History.

*****

A good friend heads up the Zinn Education Project, which works to get A People’s History into middle and high school classrooms. If anything could have improved my grades in high school (and it’s possible that nothing could have), it would have been coming across that book earlier. For more information about the project you can go here.

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How Quickly I Forget

I’ve done several interviews over the past couple days, and one of the questions that has come up is how working on the book has changed me. When asked, I make the point that I have spent a lot more time reflecting on how much hard work is being done, every minute, that I benefit from, and how little I thought about this before. When I first left the lettuce fields in Yuma, I couldn’t enter a grocery store without spending a good amount of time in the produce aisle. I’d go from head to head of lettuce, picking them up, turning them over to admire (or critique) the cut, reading the label, giving them a squeeze, and wondering just where they came from and whose labor made their appearance in the grocery store possible. In retrospect, I probably looked like quite the psycho.

Since I don’t eat meat, I haven’t had the same flashbacks when buying chicken–but I do think about my coworkers in Alabama whenever a KFC commercial comes on the television. And after my time working as a delivery “boy” for a restaurant in Manhattan, I picked up this pretty consistent habit of, when riding around the city, striking up conversations with delivery workers at intersections or while pedaling alongside them.

Recently, though, I had an experience that made me realize how easy it can be to forget to pay attention. For the last six months, I’ve been working for a union in a very large building. Each morning, either while I’m locking up my bike or when in the elevator, I see the same young man–who can’t be older than twenty–delivering food. But I’m usually thinking about work and what needs to get done, or just zoning out zombie-style…so I’ve never actually asked him about the job, and a few mornings I’m sure I didn’t even register his presence.

Finally, a few days ago, as we were taking the elevator, I asked him in Spanish how work was. He said it was okay. I mentioned that I had worked for a short period doing delivery. That seemed to get him interested, and he expanded on the “okay” job by saying that in fact his boss only paid him $2 an hour. That’s less than half the legal minimum wage for delivery workers, which at $4.60 is already laughable. So it’s 2010, he’s living in the one of the most expensive cities in the world, doing one of the most dangerous jobs, and his boss is handing over $2 an hour. To top it off, he’s spending part of each morning at a union headquarters.

He got off the elevator mid-conversation, but I look forward to hearing more about his story. I’m not sure exactly what my point is here–I sense I’m wobbling around a bit this morning–except that the project of paying attention is one that requires diligence. Not that paying attention is enough: me striking up a conversation and learning about labor abuses isn’t helping anyone. But being aware and seeing often invisible workers is a necessary first-step if we want to start changing things.

***

Second item: today is my book’s official publication date! (And my grandpa’s birthday!) Or at least today is the original publication date, as I think the official date has now been moved to next Monday, February 1st. Either way, the book should now be in most bookstore across the country (and around the world?). I did spy four copies of it at a Barnes and Noble in Brooklyn, sitting on the new non-fiction table. I spoke with a Barnes and Noble employee about the book, who was actually impressed that lettuce workers earned $8.27 an hour. “We start at $7.15,” the middle-aged man told me, making me wonder when a union was going to set its sights on the company.

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Whither Immigration Reform?

There has been an undercurrent of anxiety about the prospects for immigration reform following last week’s Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts. I’m far from a political junkie–even five minutes of cable new coverage makes my head hurt–but despite my cultivated political ignorance, I think it worth making a few points in support of pushing for reform in 2010.

Reason #1: It cuts across traditional Democrat/Republican voting patterns.

One of the things I hate about politics in the US is how predictable everyone’s views are, with votes often splitting down party lines. Immigration is one of those issues that isn’t so neat and tidy. And there’s reason for optimism, as a recent poll shows over 60% of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents support what is called “a pathway to legalization.”

Now, I usually pay no attention to polling, because the whole phenomenon is unbearably boring and depressing. But that doesn’t mean I won’t cite a poll or two if it supports something that I think is worth doing anyway…

Reason #2: Latinos

Let’s face it: lots of politicians are scared of Latinos. Scared that as a population they’re growing fast, scared of what it might mean for the future of this country – hell, probably even scared when they overhear Spanish being spoken in the grocery aisle. But as good politicians, what frightens them to no end is losing an election. The inescapable fact is that a party that demonizes immigrants or puts up an ugly fight (and this fight will quickly get ugly: I’m looking at you, tea-baggers) against immigration reform will lose any hope of earning the Latino vote for a long time.

Reason #3: Folks seem to be organized

I’ve been following semi-regularly the blog of Reform Immigration for America, the umbrella network of groups working for reform. It’s been pretty impressive to see the number of places that have been holding events of late in support of reform; especially noteworthy is the very active participation of churches and labor. Thus far, much of the activity has been below the radar of the large media, which is understandable given the current health care debacle. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as there’s a difference between gaining media coverage and building a movement. My sense right now is that there is a lot of unseen work going on in living rooms and Sunday services, recruiting people while also preparing for a fight.

Reason #4: Enough with the realpolitik–it’s the right thing to do

Truth be told, this is the one I really care about. Studying polls and demographic trends might raise the heart rates of political science folks, but what really gives me hope for the chances of reform is the moral imperative. That, and the fact that life is unpredictable (who would have thought, for example, that Ted Kennedy’s seat would be won by a Republican?). Every successful movement for social justice started out with long odds. Imagine if the women that called the Montgomery Bus Boycott had waited until polling demonstrated they had a certain victory before taking action…

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Whites-Only Professional Basketball League!

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about blogging: it can be very hard to actually do it when dealing with things like a job and a bunch of random book publicity stuff. But after this week I should have more time to carve out space to write more…that’s this week’s resolution, at least.

In the meantime, I came across a story courtesy of Color Lines yesterday that, well, what can be said about it that I don’t say in the blog title?

The All-American Basketball Alliance wants to begin in twelve cities in the South. To qualify, you should be relatively tall, a decent athlete, and–of course–a ‚Äúnatural born United States citizens with both parents of Caucasian race.” No details are given about rule changes they might be incorporating, but I imagine dunks could become the new 3-pointer.

As far as I can tell, this is serious. If you’re skeptical, you can read the original article here. I’m certain it won’t go anywhere (12 cities?). That being said, I hope it at least stays around long enough for a Daily Show correspondent to go down and file a story.

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Book Trailer is Live

There is finally a book trailer for Working in the Shadows! Whether or not a book trailer can actually improve sales is a very open question. I did learn, though, that it’s a fun and very challenging project to attempt to boil down a year’s worth of experiences and 300-pages of writing into a video less than five minutes long. I’ve posted it below, and hope you enjoy!

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On Earned Citizenship

After a nice ten-day break from the blog, I’m back and getting increasingly excited for the impending publication of Working in the Shadows. Later today, I hope to actually lay hands on a finished copy of the hardcover book for the first time, and will probably sleep with it next to my pillow, as I used to do with new pairs of shoes as a kid.

Right now, priorities include getting together a “book trailer” (a short video that introduces the book to people who evidently don’t like to read…don’t ask me: I’m just following the lead of publishing professionals here); trying to write an op-ed or two that ties in with the book; and finalizing book talks for February and March.

While I’ve been walking the fine line between necessary self-marketing and obnoxious self-promotion, I came across an interesting/depressing article about how the recession has affected Latino immigrants in New York City.

The article, published in the Times, looks at the situation of day laborers who can’t find work and have found themselves living on the street. The accompanying photo is dramatic, and in many ways the article reminds me of pieces I’ve read documenting the precarious situation of California farmworkers camped out under tarps in ravines near the fields. The piece is available here.

The hardships that undocumented workers suffer got me thinking about a term I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more in the coming months: earned citizenship. This term, which is meant to convince people who are skeptical about immigration reform, is supposed to highlight the fact that immigration reform doesn’t just grant people amnesty, but forces them to follow a path to citizenship that they must “earn” by paying fees, taking English classes, watering their neighbor’s lawn, etc.

I understand the strategic purpose of highlighting this idea, but it still makes me want to punch the nearest wall. The truth is that most undocumented immigrants have already demonstrated more chutzpah than people like me ever will, and have already sacrificed to the extent that the notion of making them “earn” anything is condescending.

When I was at the chicken plant, I worked with a bunch of Guatemalan immigrants. My life story: I grew up in the suburbs, moved to New York City, like to read and write.

Their life story: fled a civil war in which many of their friends and family were killed. Arrived in Florida to pick tomatoes for years in an area where slave labor still flourishes. Now spend eight hours a day doing the highly repetitive work of poultry processing, sometimes suffering from carpal tunnel and other ailments. Half of my English-speaking orientation crew had left the job within weeks; many of the Guatemalans I worked alongside had stuck with the work for years.

When I’ve gotten to know the individual stories of undocumented immigrants, the last thing on my mind is that they need to “earn” something more in order to prove they are willing to make sacrifices to live in this country. Instead, I think about how lucky I am to have had such an easy life, which was only made possible because some very determined Finns and Norwegians took a big risk a hundred years ago and got on a boat. Of course, back then we didn’t make my ancestors “earn” anything–if they were white and had the gumption to make the dangerous trek, they were granted legal status–so some things have certainly changed…

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