Saturday, November 8, 2008

Canvassing, revisited

I've been thinking about my canvassing experience in Indiana a lot lately, and so I was fascinated to come across this letter from a book I found in a used book store recently, Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999 (Lisa Grunwald & Stephen J. Adler, eds., The Dial Press). The poverty Les Johnson describes sounds terribly familiar.

The summer of 1964--"Freedom Summer"--would remain among the most memorable in the lives of hundreds of students participating in the efforts of the SNCC to register Mississippi blacks for the vote. Volunteer Les Johnson wrote home...the same month that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Canvassing is very trying, you walk a little dusty street, with incredibly broken down shacks. The people sitting on porches staring away into nowhere--The sweat running down your face! Little kids half-naked in raggy clothes all over the place--this is what you face with your little packet of "Freedom Forms."
We don't canvass except between 4 and 7 at night because most people are in the fields in the day.
I've spent 3 hours, talking and got only 2 forms signed, other times I've gotten 10 in an hour.
We've gotten almost 2000 registered now in Clarksdale.
Unfortunately, Freedom registration is terribly remote to these people. I almost feel guilty--like I'm playing for numbers only; for you walk up to a porch, knock on a door and enter another world. A world made up, mainly, like Pop Art. The walls are inevitably covered with a funeral hall calendar, a portrait calendar of President Kennedy, old graduation pictures. Maybe a new cheap lamp from Fred's dollar store.
You meet an afraid, but sometimes eager, curious face--one which is used to--many times over 70 years worth--saying "Yes Sir" to everything a white man says--and not really listening. You see their pain, the incredible years of suffering etched in their worn faces; and then if you convince them to sign you leave. You walk down the deteriorating steps to the dirt, to the next house--the next world and start in on your Sales pitch again, leaving behind something which has broken you a little more. Poverty in the abstract does nothing to you. When you wake up to it every morning, and come down through the streets of it, and see the same old many playing the accordian on the ground, the same man selling peaches out of a basket too heavy for his twisted body, the same children, a day older--a day closer to those men--after this everyday, pov erty is a reality that is so outrageous you have to learn to be unshocked and become jaded for the moment--or else be unable to function.
Little hands grope everyday for a nickle--it's hard to say "no" to kids who's lives are already a Hell which White America refused to care about.
These children represent a tremendous amount of energy, a talent, and value--all of which the white world says--"let this energy pitch cotton, and clean up after me, and do work I don't want to do." That energy is finally coming to the surface in Harlem and Rochester and as Mr. Baldwin has said, "if we don't find a productive channel for that energy we will be destroyed by that energy."

The children that Les Johnson describes are my age or a little older now. The folks I met in those broken-down neighborhoods are white and black and Hispanic now, but the most notable difference between Les Johnson's experience and mine was the palpable feeling of hope for a better future.
Yes we can.

1 comment:

Joan Dolence said...

If you like Letters of the Century, check out Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler.