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Growing Up An Outlaw Woman

Eric Zass

This interview here appears unabridged. The version that ran in the Sep/Oct 2002 issue was edited for space, but we wanted to make the entire discussion available.

In her 1997 memoir, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz wrote about her difficult childhood in rural Oklahoma. More than a revolutionary coming-of-age story, it's a revealing and intimate look at a segment of the American population that at one time had made up the radical backbone of Leftism in the US and has slowly shifted to become the main support for reactionary groups like the Christian Coalition and the now declining militia movement. Red Dirt was not only a telling of her own coming to political consciousness, but an insightful story of the radical left's decline in the US and the rise of the extreme right in these areas. Dunbar Ortiz is familiar with the hopes and dreams of the mainly Scots-Irish settlers ("the footsoldiers of imperialism") who crossed and conquered the US in search of inhabitable land, and the ways in which they were manipulated. Her new memoir, Outlaw Woman, is a continuation of her story, chronicling in detail her years on the West Coast coming to increasing political consciousness – organizing with the anti-war movement, her role in the gestation of radical feminism and the birth of the feminist group Cell 16, and her time organizing and assisting anti-imperialist movements in Cuba, in Nicaragua, in South Africa, and around the world. Her account is not a triumphant war story, though – the kind that Hollywood has been churning out in ever greater numbers since September. It belongs squarely within the tradition of storytelling – laying bare the ugly parts and difficult challenges (not always overcome) that she and the movements of the 1960s faced, the successes. and the disappointments. Unlike the folk outlaw stories we're more accustomed to hearing, Outlaw Woman has a more or less happy ending. At 63, Dunbar Ortiz is still a militant activist and brilliant thinker who now lives and teaches in San Francisco. I met up with her after her two-month long reading tour to ask her a few questions ...

Going back to your first book, Red Dirt: Growing up Okie, you talk about your grandfather's history as an organizer for the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], and your father's leaning toward more right-wing politics. How did those two worldviews come to frame how you saw things?

Dunbar Ortiz: It was confusing. My father was a storyteller, and his youth was so absorbed with the drama of my grandfather's life. My father was eight to 14 at the height of the IWW organizing. He was born the year the IWW was formed and my grandfather was a charter member because he had been in the socialist party, so really my father's whole youth was caught up with his father's activities in this very rural place, and as the organizing intensified, the Ku Klux Klan and the repression from the government began to affect him. He remembers his grandfather fighting this in armed encounters where they were defending the schoolboard, for instance, when the Ku Klux Klan was trying to take over the schools. This was such an important part of his growing up that he told the stories to me. I was a sickly child so I was a very good listener. My other brother and sisters would never sit and listen to my father tell stories, so I was a sort of conduit. It really took with me. These kind of rural storytellers tell their stories as almost a rote thing; you know, everything exactly as it happened. I think when he first started telling me these stories in the 1940s when I was really young, he didn't see any kind of political implications to them. He himself was never political. His father died soon after that and his mother was very conservative so he didn't take up the banner. He probably would have had the repression not been so strong but there was nothing really left there. When the McCarthy era began, he stopped telling me these stories, realizing that it was not very safe to have this communist background. I remember the Rosenberg execution the day it happened and I remember the kind of fear it generated, my mother's fear especially. I would hear her say, "Don't tell her those things." His political views were not so rabidly right-wing until way after I had left in the '50s. I was very confused by his move toward the right. He hated Truman; he even thought Eisenhower was too liberal. He liked MacArthur. There was a whole change in populist rural sentiment at that period, leading eventually to George Wallace and. more dangerously, Ronald Reagan.

How do you think that developed? Having been told all of these stories about the IWW, and having lived through the McCarthy era, how do you think he - and, moreover, our whole society - came to adopt right-wing views?

I think essentially the underlying white supremacy that the right-wing, fundamentalist preachers espoused – the John Birch society, for instance – was very attractive to those without a whole lot of power. Even if you weren't directly connected with them, these groups were targeting rural radio stations and schoolboards and a number of other places. They had built into it a very rabid white supremacy – anti-black, anti-civil rights – but they also used the populism surrounding anti-capitalism. They were against the exploitation of bankers, etc. This was thinly disguised anti-Semitism. I don't think my father ever put that together. I put it together since that his railing against the bankers was really a code for railing against Jews. It was a repeat, a more tragic one in a way, of the 1890s populist movement when there was an alliance of black and white sharecroppers in the South. With the populist party forming, they turned against and dropped the black affiliation and supported Jim Crow in order to take votes away from the Democratic Party. It was more serious in the case of the IWW because they were pretty clear about their stand on racism and imperialism at the time and did not have a patriotic component. They opposed the first World War as a rich man's war, so they had an anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiment that never existed with the earlier populists. I see their downfall as much more tragic than that of the sharecroppers. It had to do, not entirely with governmental and right-wing repression, but with the Bolshevik Revolution. At that time, the socialist forces in the United States split and the old socialist party was pretty much destroyed. The IWW was also. A person like John Reed, who was one of the founders of the US Communist Party and had been a very active Wobbly, affiliated himself with the struggle in Russia, so you see a kind of change toward that affiliation with the Soviet Union and supporting the survival of the existing socialist party. It made sense at the time, but we see that being played out, not building a very solid working class movement in the United States, not supporting the roots of American radicalism. They were basically importing and supporting Russian socialism. People were internationalized, transferring their support to another country, mainly the USSR, and then swinging back in the 1930s to a kind of Americanism that they adopted as a way of reaching populist sentiment which I think just fed into the patriotism of the McCarthy era. The Communist party probably had more influence on workers becoming non-international because the whole definition of international became supporting the USSR and not workers of all the world, so then they could be accused of being traitors and of supporting another country, all of these things which were thinly disguised ways of destroying them. I also think more and more that there was a division between the old-time US radicals, including African Americans and Native Americans, the old settler descendents (Scots-Irish), and the Irish on one hand, and the eastern European and Russian-born, both Jewish and non-Jewish, on the other. More and more I see that the eastern Europeans had real ties to Russia. It wasn't just an abstract loyalty but a real interest and a loyalty to Russia – or as in the case of Emma Goldman, a passionate opposition to the Bolsheviks.

Do you think that has any relevance to the swing back towards extreme patriotism and right-wing politics in the US now?

I think one consequence of international solidarity getting set as a pattern was the disillusionment with the Soviet Union that followed and, ultimately, the fall of Russian socialism, but more the disillusionment, people dropping out of the movement and rejecting it as a model. We seem to have this peculiar – at least I think it's peculiar to the United States – tendency to look for a socialist model we can identify with. That was very strong in the Vietnam War. We sort of felt we had to establish the Vietnamese as perfect or the Cuban revolution as perfect or the Angolan revolution as perfect. Then when they were seen to be flawed – most clearly in the ‘80s with the Sandanista revolution – then there's this feeling of betrayal. There was a constant sense of investing in these revolutions something that was not there and could not be there and probably wasn't even desirable, and then feeling betrayed when there were seen to be flaws. I think I saw that in the Gulf War when people tried to find something to hang onto in order to support Saddam Hussein. You can oppose US intervention and imperialism without glorifying the victim of it. Saddam Hussein was a monster. He killed off all the communists in 1980. I had a lot of Iraqi friends who had to go into exile. He was very much obeying US directives. He really sold out to US imperialism, invaded Iran, and killed all the communists. There's nothing to admire in this man, but it still doesn't make it right for the US to create a major war to secure oil supplies. I don't think this desire to search for a perfect model comes from something in the American character – that we want things to be fast or perfect or whatever. I think it comes from this pattern that was set in identifying with the Soviet Union and a sense of betrayal that remains with us, and that going back and forth and back and forth.

So what's missing is a desire for a sort of homegrown version of American socialism?

Yes, and when people turn to look for the roots of American socialism, they too often turn to the founding fathers and the founding documents – what I call a form of the origins story. That's not what I mean by a rooted tradition of socialism. I know that the Wobblies fought for free speech but they were not so interested in the Constitution as a safeguard of their human rights and their right to speak and not have the government shut them up. They were anti-statist. They were anarchists. They believed that you don't have to have a constitution that says you have the right to speak up in order to demand that right or any of your rights. You don't need a document to say that. That is your right intrinsically. It's not something that just flows out of the Constitution. That's what they asserted. Of course they gave a lot of strength to First Amendment rights and laws for free speech by demanding them and fighting for them. I think they're very much a model we should look to as an indigenous social justice model that doesn't look back to the origins of the state as what we should identify with and adhere to and promote. I think a lot of people abandon leftism and militancy for liberalism thinking that they may be more effective if they were to compromise, or just to feel as if they were on the winning side for once, but you see, joining the winning side puts you back into a system. I think the electoral system is really a pit that people fall into when trying to make real change. I have nothing against campaigns like Nader's which are clearly to raise consciousness, not a serious bid for presidency, though I wish it would take some other form because it encourages people to register to vote and get into all these electoral arguments. I think the IWW was really right about politics in the United States. They understood it was a pitfall and in their constitution absolutely prohibited getting too involved in electoral politics. Members could vote if they wanted – and most of them voted for the socialist party candidate – but they were told not to invest their organizing skills or their energy into electoral politics and they didn't field candidates. I think we need to get away from that completely. Since the vast majority of young people between 18 and 25 don't vote, they're the main non-voters, and also many people of color are non-voters, that a strategy could be built to organize positively to boycott the vote. It's irrelevant and useless the way this society is constructed – and saying so would give credence to their instincts. These are not stupid people. They would be going against their own sense of what's real if they were to vote and they're right. When I said this in Stockton, a couple of people said, "Oh, this is the most important right we have, the right to vote." I know that in the civil rights movement it was important and I think it's probably still important in local elections. You can make a difference in your local school board or your local government, but on big national campaigns you have a choice between the lesser of two evils. It's one thing to compromise and find common ground on an issue and another thing to constantly demean yourself by supporting someone who's your enemy. I think it really drags us down and wastes a whole lot of energy. I think we could turn a passive resistance into an active resistance. It seems counter-intuitive. Rather than registering people to vote, why not organize a boycott of the vote? Jesse Jackson has been registering voters for almost 20 years now and it hasn't done anything.

Between your two memoirs, you characterize yourself extremely differently. In Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, you characterize yourself as an Okie – which is an outcast, sort of a negative term. In Outlaw Woman, you've ...


You're an outlaw – a very proud outcast. How and when do you think those changes took place?

I definitely think those stories are important. It certainly is one of the reasons I think it's important to tell stories, to write them down, to speak them, to share them. My father's stories were what developed in my mind a space for seeing things that generally people are not directed to see in this society. In my own family, those stories surrounded getting rich if you could, to marrying a rich man, trying to be president. Be a movie star or a sports star. Really poor people have these very vaunted ideas of what you can do in America if you really try. It's kind of a Horatio Alger thing. If you don't make it, especially if you're white, it's assumed that it was just your own fault, because you have all the opportunity in the world. I heard those messages; they were everywhere, but I also had these other stories told unwittingly by my father, you know, that perhaps this society wasn't something I really wanted to aspire to, because it's not right. I had a pretty strong working class identity. Only for a short period of time in my teenage years I was ashamed of being poor and would lie and say my father owned a horse ranch or something like that. This was in a very working class high school where the kids were poor, working class, blue collar, urban, but not rural. Being rural had a kind of negative image in Oklahoma. Rural people were assumed to be hicks and hayseeds, rednecks, and stuff like that. I was proud of my class background, but not so proud of being rural for periods in my life. I think that that pride wouldn't have been there without those stories and the model of my grandfather and the other characters my father told me about. Just knowing something is possible – that it's not just imaginary or some pipe dream – really makes a big difference. I think I really had that fighting spirit and I'm just very lucky that I became an adult as the ‘60s started and all of the social upheavals began. There was a place I could go to learn more and connect with others like myself. I think there are a lot of people like me throughout history and in every society who then have no place to go to for periods of time, who write poetry, or do something else, or else go crazy.

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