Black History: Hidden Figures and The Underground Railroad

In recognition of Black History Month, this last post in February is about two experiences I’ve had this month related to African-American history. At the start of the month, I saw the movie, Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. And during the last half of the month, I read The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead. Both have caused me to reflect about story and history—two themes I write about frequently in this blog.

First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hidden Figures. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to it. But the movie told an unknown chapter in African-American history in a dramatic and engaging way. If Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels, then these women “computers” did it backward, in heels, and running half a mile to the bathroom every day.

I didn’t grow up with the Jim Crow segregation laws because I came from a small town in the Northwest. I went to public school with Blacks starting in 1961, there were no separate drinking fountains or restrooms in my town, and there was no public transportation in town so no one worried about who sat in the back of the bus. I didn’t really become aware of racism until the mid-60s when the national news reported marches and riots in large cities.

When the movie was over, I wanted to know more. What was true and what wasn’t? Turns out, the Kevin Costner character is a composite, and no one really tore down the “colored” bathroom sign. Still, there weren’t restrooms for black women in every building at Langley, and Mary Jackson did have to search out a restroom (though Kathryn Johnson just used the unmarked white restrooms). Several other characters in the movie were also composites or fictional, but their attitudes seemed true to the period. As depicted in the film, African-American women at Langley really did work in separate rooms and ate in separate cafeterias.

Most of the salient points in the three protagonists’ histories were true. Kathryn Johnson did ask to attend briefings that no woman had previously attended, and she did verify the calculations for John Glenn’s first American orbit of Earth. And John Glenn did ask NASA to “get the girl to check the numbers.” Dorothy Vaughn was the first African-American supervisor at Langley and was a strong voice for the female computers who worked for her. Mary Jackson was the first African-American female engineer, and she did have to file a petition to get into the school where she could take courses she needed to qualify as an engineer.

So I discovered the story of Hidden Figures was definitely “Hollywoodized.” Nevertheless, I came away believing it was a true depiction both of the racism and sexism of the 1950s and of the intelligence and courage of these African-American women in contributing to the space program.

Shortly after seeing the movie, I began reading The Underground Railroad, which describes a better-known period in African-American history. This era in the 19th Century is filled with dramatic accounts of slave escapes and the elaborate and dangerous routes they took. I’ve read about gun-toting Harriet Tubman’s courageous trips to the South and about slaves hidden for months in barns and attics, much as Jews were hidden from the Nazis a century later. I wanted to read Colson Whitehead’s best-selling version of this epic story.

The book starts with a lengthy section describing life on a Georgia plantation under cruel masters and foremen. I believed his account. His writing is strong. I found Cora, the young female slave protagonist, to be sympathetic and believable. (Some reviews I’ve read have criticized the depth of the characters in the book, but I did not have that problem.) I was rooting for Cora and her companion Caesar to escape the plantation and find the underground railway station.

And then it turned out that the author created an actual underground railway station, complete with locomotive and box car, to spirit Cora and Caesar out of Georgia. The license he took with the truth totally turned me off of the book, though I did finish it. The novel continues with many stops along their journey. I won’t go into those so as to prevent spoilers. I will only say that at each point in the novel where Cora moves from location to location, she does so on an actual railroad located underground.

What a dumb concoction! The “underground railroad” name was a metaphor. It was “underground” because it was a resistance movement, and the people involved only knew a limited amount about the route, so they could not give away information if they were caught. It was a “railroad” because of the labels given to the locations and personnel involved. The stops were called “stations,” they were run by “station masters” with “conductors” and “agents.” But Colson Whitehead turned the metaphor on its head and purported to make it reality.

As a writer of historical fiction, as one who tries to make my fiction truthful, I found this construct a complete distraction from what should have been a compelling story. I liked the writing. I liked the characters, and I was prepared to believe their experiences. Then I was confronted with a “cute” fiction in a serious book. I couldn’t accept it.

I have been cogitating on why I can accept the Hollywoodization in Hidden Figures and not the fictional construct in The Underground Railroad. I’ve certainly read plenty of books that have turned history on its head—many time travel novels (such as Stephen King’s 11-22-63) take obvious creative license and use portals more bizarre than Colson Whitehead’s. But in those books, the reader knows what is coming—the fiction is the purpose of the story, and they are labeled as fantasy or science fiction. In Hidden Figures, the composite characters and the overstatements (such as running half a mile to the bathroom) improve the dramatic arc of the story. They are “truthy” in our current vernacular.

By contrast, Whitehead’s creation of a fictional underground locomotive detracts from the story. I had not read anything about the book containing fantasy before I started it. Moreover, the reality of the slaves’ journeys from place to place was so much more dangerous and dramatic than what he depicted that in my opinion the train chugging into the underground tunnels cheapened the real history he wrote about.

I had other problems with The Underground Railroad, such as its frequent interruptions of Cora’s story to provide a chapter of back story on another character, but I could have lived with those. The major flaw in the book was the underground train. I wanted the book to add to my knowledge of the African-American experience. Instead, his fantastical construct made me question the rest of the history in the book. The history may be at least as “truthy” as the history in the film Hidden Figures, but why did Whitehead give his readers cause to doubt?

In an interview on National Public Radio, Whitehead said:

“once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, . . . it freed me up to play with time a bit more. . . . it allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850 – skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it’s all presented sort of matter-of-factly . . . .”

Well, I wish I’d known this before I read the book.

When have you been impressed by or turned off by a historical movie or novel?

Why Did the Emigrants Head West? For Prosperity, Health, or “Manifest Destiny”?

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study, U.S. Capitol, by Emanuel Leutze)

I decided to write about the Oregon Trail in part because the concept of leaving home for an unknown wilderness so far away is such an alien concept to me. I’ve moved across the country on a few occasions, but I don’t like spending time in the wilderness.

Why did the emigrants choose to leave? I wanted to know. What made them pack what they could in a wagon and leave family and friends behind?

As I researched, I discovered that the reasons were as varied as why we move from state to state or leave one job to take another.

Most pioneers left for economic opportunity. They could own more land—free land—in the West than they had in the settled territories.

Some left for health reasons. Plagues of cholera and smallpox and other illnesses struck the East Coast regularly. The open land was considered healthier. Of course, it wasn’t long before diseases followed the people.

Some went for patriotic reasons. Americans wanted to drive the British out of the Pacific Northwest and the Mexicans out of California.

“Manifest destiny” was a phrase coined by John L. O’Sullivan in an article titled “Annexation” in the July-August 1845 edition of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. In this article, Mr. O’Sullivan argued that the U.S. should annex Texas, writing:

“other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves . . . in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

And he went on to point the finger specifically at England and France.

Zeal for “manifest destiny” became the prevailing sentiment of most Americans—the United States should extend unbroken from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This attitude led not only to settling the West, but also to ill-treatment of Native Americans, as well as to war with Mexico and conflicts with Great Britain.

Regardless of their rationales, all types of people emigrated to the West. Most were hard-working and sensible—farmers and tradesmen who intended to work for prosperity they hoped to find in the new land. These families were probably less motivated by politics than by prosperity.

But there were also those who left home unprepared for the hardships of the journey. Some families brought their sick and elderly, unwilling to be parted. Others came who had lived in luxury in the East and knew nothing about fending for themselves.

And there were the troublemakers one finds in every crowd. I created one such troublemaker—Samuel Abercrombie—in Lead Me Home, and this character reappears in Now I’m Found and in my current work-in-progress about this same wagon company. I have to admit, writing scenes with Samuel in them are the most fun!

The migration to the West is a reminder that we are a diverse people, with varied motives and abilities. It takes all kinds to settle a nation and to populate a novel. Though conflict, in my opinion, is more enjoyable on the page than in real life.

Do you know why your ancestors came to the United States?

Pompeii: A Lesson in Life and Death . . . and History

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was aware from a very young age of the power of volcanoes. Not that I ever experienced one, but we learned about them in geography, and I knew that the mountains all around us were volcanic. Indian legends told of past eruptions, and we knew that many of our most majestic peaks still had the potential to blow.

And then, not long after I moved away, but while my family still lived in Washington State on both sides of the Cascades, Mount St. Helens erupted. The volcano’s devastation could be seen first-hand

But the Romans of 1st Century Pompeii did not even have a word for “volcano,” according to an exhibit on Pompeii that I recently attended. Imagine these Romans’ shock on that day in 79 A.D., when rocks and fiery ash rained down, ultimately burying everyone and everything beneath many feet of debris and ash.

Detail from Last Days of Pompeii, painting by Russian artist Karl Bryullov, 1830-33

The exhibit is called “Journey Through Time: To the Last Day of the Lost City”, and it is housed at Union Station in Kansas City. It displays nearly 200 artifacts on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

The volcano that destroyed Pompeii also preserved it, and the items in the exhibit tell the story of the destruction and of the way of life that was destroyed. Pompeii may give us the best depiction of how Romans lived in the 1st Century A.D. that we will ever have.

The volcano had been active for millennia before the eruption in 79 A.D., but it had been dormant for generations, and most ancient Romans were probably not even aware of its potential to erupt. Pompeii had been destroyed by an earthquake in 62 A.D., and if residents gave the rumblings in the days ahead of the eruption any thought, it was probably to suspect another earthquake.

The eruption began shortly after noon one day and continued through the evening. Most residents of the city of 25,000 probably had only a few hours to evacuate the city. Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness from a neighboring town, described the ash cloud as causing “darkness as if the light had gone out in a room that is locked and sealed.”

When it was over, almost five cubic miles of pumice and ash covering approximately 186 miles of land. People were buried in place, some in their homes, some trying to flee. Over 2,000 people lost their lives as a result of the eruption.

Cast of deceased Pompeiian

The ash covered the dead so completely that centuries later we know exactly the position some were in when they died. Their remains have since decayed, but the ash remained firmly in place. Researchers made casts of the spaces in the ash where bodies used to be. The casts are precise enough to show folds in clothing and expressions on faces. Some of those casts were in the Union Station exhibit.

The city was lost for almost 1700 years. Its destruction was so complete that the Romans soon forgot where it had been. It was rediscovered in 1748, and over the last 250 years, we have learned about Roman civilization from its preserved buildings and artifacts.

During the early excavations, the city was crudely plundered, and for decades there was no attempt to record or preserve the site. Later, Italy took control of the best frescoes and artifacts, which are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. In 1997, Pompeii and surrounding sites were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Nevertheless, nature continues to harm the site. It’s been struck by earthquakes, and in 2010 torrential rains destroyed some buildings. In the end, nature will win, and all we will have left of Pompeii is what we can preserve in museums and what has never been excavated. (Approximately one-third of the city is still buried.)

I’ve been to the excavations at Pompeii twice and seen the barren stone streets and buildings. Some frescoes and statues are still in place, but most have been moved. But I’d never seen artifacts as well preserved as those included in the Union Station exhibit.

As I walked the streets of Pompeii, most recently in November 2005, I could get the sense of a bustling city. But the stone shells and the few remaining frescoes do not tell the story of the people who lived there the way the traveling exhibit does. The every-day artifacts in the exhibit, supplemented by the imagination of historians and museum curators fill in the gaps.

We know how the Romans decorated their homes. And what types of jewelry they wore.

We know the armor the gladiators sported. We know how they measured their weights. And what their tweezers looked like. And even how their hydraulic valves worked.

Bust of Agrippina the Elder decorating a home in Pompeii. Notice dye still visible on her hair.

Asp water fountain

Jewelry. I would wear this today.

A gladiator's shin guard

Roman hydraulic valve

Weights from a shop in Pompeii

Bronze tweezers

Cast of dog. Only the bronze studs on his collar remain.

And, of course, we know how they died.

This exhibit depicted how natural forces can both destroy and educate. It showed me how the fear of one generation can provoke awe many centuries later. And it made me wonder what daily artifacts of our lives today will provoke amazement a millennium from now.

I have the same thoughts when I see museum exhibits on the American pioneers, but my marvel at history becomes even greater when I think about our society today sometime becoming so ancient we are known only through archeology.

What have historical exhibits taught you about life in the past?

Jumping Off! I’m Launching a Website — Theresa Hupp, Author

When the pioneers to Oregon left the settled territories for the West, they said they were “jumping off.” Communities like Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, were known as “jumping off places.” It was from these last bastions of civilization that the emigrants headed into the unknown, into a land of both promise and hardship.I feel like I’m jumping off as I launch this new website after blogging at Story & History on WordPress.com for five years. For the last year or so, I have wanted to provide readers with more information on my life, my writing, and my books than what I have included on my blog, and so I set as one of my 2017 goals to launch my own website.

So I am proud to announce the launch of this self-hosted website, Theresa Hupp, Author — https://theresahuppauthor.com

It has been a blessing to me to make connections with friends and readers on Story & History, and I hope subscribers to that blog will take a look at this new site and continue to follow me. I want to continue to post about “One writer’s journey through life and time”—the tagline for my blog, and my continuing mission for the website.

All my earlier posts have been moved here from Story & History. I will be working with WordPress to migrate subscribers from Story & History on WordPress.com to this site, which should happen over the next few days. I hope the transition will be seamless to you (except for the look of the new site), but I’ve never done this before, so I cannot guarantee perfection.

Of course, if you do not wish to continue on this site, feel free to unsubscribe.

When you do look through the pages on Theresa Hupp, Author, if you notice any links that aren’t working or other errors, please let me know through the “Contact Me” page. And if there is information you would like me to include on the site, please let me know that also. I want what I post to be helpful to readers, as well as a place to hang out with friends.

I have loved getting to know people through blogging. Readers of Story & History have been a kind and generous community, and I hope my connections with you continue to grow.

My thanks to those of you who have followed me on WordPress.com for the past five years . . .

And I hope you will jump off with me to Theresa Hupp, Author!

Yo, Mom: An Introduction to the Teenage Years

I’ve written before about our family’s trips to the Absaroka Ranch in Wyoming, where we spent a summer week riding horses, except for occasional breaks to hike or go river-rafting. On our last trip in 1994, my son was twelve. It was his third time to the ranch (or the fourth?), and he was an old hand. He relished the freedom from parents that the ranch permitted—most days, the kids had separate activities from the adults.

Son on horseback the day of the “Yo, Mom” incident. He’s holding on in this picture.

One afternoon, the ranch staff had all the kids who were there that week practicing various gaits as they rode across a large open field. I was leaning on a fence nearby, watching the kids show off.

From the middle of the field, my son shouted, “Yo, Mom!” as he trotted by, waving his hands in the air, not touching horse or reins, a big grin on his face. Like Superman, only on horseback. His cocky assurance that he wouldn’t fall off was evident.

I was a little taken aback at his casual greeting. “Yo, Mom?” It wasn’t part of my vocabulary. I didn’t know it was part of his.

But he was so clearly enjoying himself that I let it pass. He probably didn’t mean to be disrespectful. He was just moving into the teenage years. A few months early.

In fact, I was amused by the greeting. “Yo” became our calling sign for the next several years. His bedroom was in the basement, and when I wanted him to do something, I’d shout down, “Yo, James,” to get his attention. (I didn’t use it when I was angry, only in good humor.)

“Yo, Mom,” he would call back to signify that he had heard me.

His true teenage years began the week he turned thirteen. That was the week his cocky “Yo, Mom” morphed into talking back at me. I don’t remember what the topic was that week of his thirteenth birthday, but I gave him some instruction, and he sassed me in response.

Talking back and the hang-dog, put-upon sighs of a teenager responding to parents continued for several years. His high-school years were sometimes difficult and tense. He grew more distant when he went to college, and, of course, I couldn’t call down the stairs when he was hundreds of miles away in a dorm.

But he and I both came through his teenage years mostly unscathed. He has become a fine, independent adult. I admire the man he now is. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect that his opinions are thoughtful and well-founded.

Today, that cocky twelve-year-old turns thirty-five. He lives far away, and we only talk occasionally on the phone. I would love to be able to yell “Yo, James,” to get his attention, to have him close by, and to see him more regularly.

But it’s a good thing for both of us that he doesn’t live in the basement anymore.

Happy Birthday, Son!

Avoca Blankets: Evoking the Generations

avoca-img_20170202_085016In the summer of 2001, a few months before September 11, my daughter and I took a trip to Ireland. The trip was sponsored by her all-girls Catholic school. About ten mother/daughter pairs went, along with two teachers. The school had arranged several such trips over the years, but due to shenanigans on a previous girls-only trip, mothers were required to participate with their daughters the summer we went.

Some mothers participated for the mother/daughter bonding time, some to learn about history, some to see the scenery, some no doubt because of the Guinness. I went for most of these reasons, though not for the Guinness, which has never really appealed to me.

Most of the mothers and daughters probably had some trepidation about enforced togetherness for ten days. Each mother/daughter pair was required to share the hotel rooms in the various stops we made as we motored about Ireland. I was no exception on the trepidation issue—my sixteen-year-old daughter could be testy on occasion, and often took it out (mildly, but pointedly) on her mother.

It turned out to be a wonderful trip. There was some drama, some fatigue, some hurt feelings at various occasions for one and all. But overall, I had a delightful time, and I think my daughter did, too. Ireland is the only place outside the United States that I have visited where I felt I could really live happily. (Well, Canada is fine, but it’s too cold. And the little bit of England outside of London that I’ve seen would probably be all right. And Copenhagen came close.)

One of the places we stopped for a midday break was a touristy gift shop that sold Avoca wool products. I had never heard of Avoca before our trip, but their website now proclaims that Avoca is “an Irish family-run business that spans one of the world’s oldest surviving manufacturing companies and Ireland’s most exciting stores.”

My daughter and I didn’t buy anything in that gift shop, but a few days later when we were shopping in Dublin, we came across more Avoca products in another store. They had the most beautiful woven wool plaid throws. We each decided we needed one as a memento of the trip. I bought a blue plaid with a stripe of pale pink for myself, and my daughter selected a green plaid with a goldish stripe for herself. We squished them in our luggage for the return flight home.

I don’t like wool next to my skin—too scratchy—but that autumn I discovered my new throw was the perfect weight for snuggling under while I read or watched TV. Or a light extra layer on the bed when another blanket would be too heavy. For years now, during the winter months, it sits at the end of our bed, and I throw it over the comforter on chilly nights. I’ve had it dry-cleaned several times, but it still looks lovely, with the fringe only just starting to unravel.

m-at-xcountry-meet-w-avoca-blanket

Daughter at cross-country meet wrapped in Avoca blanket

My daughter took hers to cross-country meets during her high-school years. In college, it went with her to rowing regattas and on picnics and hikes. When she got her first apartment, it went on the back of her couch for reading and snoozing. She is now grown and owns her own home, and the Avoca throw is still on her couch. It has had a fair amount of heavy use over the years, so it’s shabbier than mine, but still looks pretty nice.

I was so taken with my Avoca throw in 2001 that when Christmas came around that year, I decided to see if I could buy more of them for Christmas gifts. I searched the web and found an Avoca source in the U.S. I think I ended up buying three more, but the only recipient I can remember for certain is that one of them was for my mother. I got her the same blue plaid design I had bought for myself.

My mother kept hers on the back of a couch to use as a cozy cover for reading also. When she went into assisted living in January 2013, the Avoca throw went with her. Unfortunately, the caregivers at the facility put the woolen throw in the laundry along with her other clothes. It felted and shrunk to half its size. When I saw it, I almost cried. After my mother died, my father gave her Avoca throw away with the rest of the things she’d had with her in assisted living—it wasn’t worth keeping.

So when I see my blue plaid Avoca throw at the end of my bed now, I remember a lovely trip with my daughter. I smile at my daughter’s growth from high-school student, through college and law school, and into independent adulthood—and of her green throw that has accompanied her at every step. I mourn my mother’s decline from cozy reader to Alzheimer’s patient and then her death, and the destruction of the Avoca throw that reflected her deterioration.

All these memories speak of continuity from one generation to the next, and they speak of the inevitable changes that occur through our lives. All these memories fill my heart because my daughter and I were taken with these pretty woolen blankets.

What do you own that symbolizes change for you?