The West, 2021: Days 21-23: Ribbon Dances in Sacramento


If you're new to Non-Boring History, welcome! Right now, things are a little hectic. I (Annette Laing, PhD, actual historian among other things) am on the road in California, with my tolerant spouse, He Who Shall Not Be Named On the Internets (HWSNBNOTI, pronounced Hoosen Benoti). I’m reporting on our historical experiences, and I'm sending more than my usual 2-3 emails each week.

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California Zoomin

Live from Sacramento via Zoom, I spoke a few days ago to the kids and teachers of Lamont School near Bakersfield, California, in the area most identified with Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. The kids are Latino, and many, if not most, are from families of farmworkers. The older kids each got a free copy of A Different Day, A Different Destiny, my time-travel novel about three modern middle schoolers in 1851. I talked to them about Victorian child labor, a big theme of the book, and especially in Britain, which pretty much invented modern child labor.

It wasn’t just kids in factories and down coal mines. The hungry jaws of unlimited (laissez-faire) capitalism demanded food for these workers. Their diets were high in carbs, especially sugar, its cheap and addictive calories providing energy through hot sweet tea, and jam sandwiches.

The sugar came from the West Indies, grown, harvested, and processed by slave labor (and later peon labor, not much of an improvement), including the work of children.

But the horrors of child trafficking and slavery also reached into England's agriculture at home. It wasn't all outsourced overseas.

I read to the kids the reminiscence of an old woman in the 1920s or 30s. She had been an orphan in East Anglia, a remote rural area notorious for its agricultural labor abuses. As an eight year old in the 1850s, she was forced to work in a gang of farmworkers, led by a gang master hired by a farmer to supply labor, no questions asked.

The gang master carried a whip, she said, which he did not hesitate to use. They walked miles from their home village, to somewhere nobody knew them. They worked fourteen hour days in the fields. At eight years old, she was the oldest.

When, four years later, at age 12, this orphan girl was trafficked hundreds of miles to work in a factory in the north of England, it was, she said, “like heaven to me”.

Given factory conditions at the time, that's a tragic indictment of the abuses in mid-Victorian rural East Anglia.

I often bring in my own stories to my schools presentations, and talking about Victorian child labor to grades 3-8, I was asked if I recalled family members having experiences of working as kids.

Indeed, I do. My grandmother, for example, was the daughter of a ploughman. Like him, she had started work at age 13 or 14, beginning her working life in an antiques shop (which she did not enjoy) By the time she turned 21, she was a nanny for a Scottish family in Hong Kong.

My great-grandmother, whom I knew well, worked more than forty years in a factory. Her elder sisters began as “half-timers”, working in factories as well as going to school, and as children, not teens.

Even I circumvented Britain's strict child labor laws in the late 70s, to work 11 hours a week at age 15 (for a pittance, since I was being paid under the table) as a waitress in a Wimpy burger joint. While I won't deny the experience was valuable, I told the kids, I didn't really need the money (such as it was) and that precious time might have been better invested in my studies, or simply reading.

Child labor hasn't gone away. Mostly, it's out of sight and mind. Yesterday, I read that the Supreme Court refused to allow men who were child laborers in African cocoa plantations to sue Nestle and Cargill corporations in American courts for having bought from plantations that used child labour, arguing that they corporations knew what was happening, or should have. The Court ruled that they have no jurisdiction over what happens in other nations. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

A Crash Course in History with Fun Pictures

The best book about history I know, told in pictures of an imaginary city block, seen over 12,000 years. Yes, adults are also allowed to read it. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

Working with Lamont kids, I also broke a longstanding personal rule, and presented to the school's littlies.

Normally, I won't speak to audiences of kids below 3rd grade. But let's just say I got talked into it, not least because the school had funds to buy each kid in 1st and 2nd grade the book of my choice. How could I resist?

No, I didn't recommend my own books for kids this young. Let's just say that, had I set out to be a grifter, I would have failed at it.

Instead, I recommended A Street Through Time, a brilliant, big, and colorful picture book from the UK, that shows the story of a fictitious street in England over 12,000 years, from hunter-gatherers camping in the woods to a busy modern city.

It's the best introduction to history I know. How many kids’ books show Romans pooping? Teach chronology and historical literacy with detailed, unpretentious pictures?

A Street Through Time has many imitators, but has never been equaled. When I was in the Getty Museum store, I ambushed a mother and teen daughter who were looking at a copy, and babbled at them about its brilliance. Before I left them, baffled and possibly disturbed by the crazed rando in the gift shop claiming to be a historian, I enquired after and approved their other homeschooling choices, including Horrible Histories. But A Street Through Time wins the entire History Books for Kids (and Adults Who Aren't Too Proud) category.

In two huge, detailed, and colorful pictures, the book shows the Street’s transition from Romans to Anglo-Saxons, and deftly demonstrates how illusory are our assumptions about the steady path of progress over time. “What could possibly go wrong?” is a theme, as it should be, since that's a historians' motto. Or should be.

Originally written by historian Dr. Anne Millard (whose name, shockingly, has been removed from recent editions, what's that about when she clearly developed the concept as well as original text?) and illustrated in delightful detail by Steve Noon, it's a winner.

And winner it was with the kids at Lamont School. They're in summer school (America, PLEASE stop doing this to children) and they're on Zoom. One little boy held up his copy of A Street Through Time, which he was already well into. I introduced the kids to the book's joys with a half-hour illustrated presentation showing just a few of the pages.

At the end, we got feedback from the kids. I promise, after all these years, they were the most excited kids I ever heard (and that's saying something, because I know when I've knocked it out of the ballpark, plus Zoom is hard, so this was really striking) The teacher in charge and I began laughing at the babble of voices. Among other words, I caught Romans.

The people who direct educational policy think non-elite kids are idiots or, even more disturbingly, want them to be. They're not, and this historian is doing everything she can to shine light on this.

Meanwhile, I was very worried to learn that many teens in the area not only work jobs outside of school, but are in football teams to try to get (generally elusive) athletic scholarships to colleges. These are bright and hardworking kids. They deserve much better.

And the most frustrating thing? I know elite colleges that would give their eyeteeth for these kids, on academic scholarships. My advice: Put down the footballs, pick up the books of your choice, and enjoy discovering breathtaking new worlds. History is a subject that, done right, is an education in itself, and a great way to engage kids in schooling. Yet it's almost never done right in curriculum. I would say I wonder why that is, but, sadly, I do know. I'm going to keep on crying out in the wilderness.

Why I Won't Be Introducing You to Idaho's City of Rocks Today

“Plans change” could be a good motto for history.

Plans certainly did change for Hoosen and me as we began our return from California. I tried to find a route to City of Rocks, a landmark on the Westward trails in Idaho, that didn't involve a dirt road. I failed. I tried calling the Visitor Center, and their number was out of order. Sometimes, destinations on the 1840s trails are hard (even dangerous) to reach in 2021. Overcast skies reminded us that dirt roads and rain aren't a great combination.

We decided to skip it this trip, do a bit of investigation, and come back in future. Judging from reviews of people whose confused GPS turned 3 hour journeys to the City of Rocks into 8 hour ordeals, this was probably wise.

This was one time when walking alongside a wagon equipped with a tent, beans, bacon, and access to clean river water, plus without a busy modern schedule, actually put the 1849 folks in a better position than us moderns, with our Honda wagon, bottled water, and dodgy voice and data connections, trying to reach the hotel we'd booked.

What, after all, could possibly go wrong?

A Ribbon Dance of Historians

Historians Drs. Shirley Moore, Joe Pitti, and Annette Laing in Sacramento, California, their native habitat. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

Another popular motto for historians: “It's complicated.”

That was certainly the theme for my delightful three-hour lunch with two historians.

I was thrilled to finally meet Shirley Moore, whose book Sweet Freedom's Plains about African-Americans on the westward trails, I absolutely love. Shirley was hired by Cal State, Sacramento, my alma mater, in 1989, a spectacular bit of bad timing, since I graduated the year before. Yes, I attended college in Sacramento, not Cambridge. I really am a Brit from Sacramento. I even pronounce it Sackamenna.

We were joined by Joe Pitti (my undergrad adviser at Cal State, Sacramento), a specialist in Latin American history, and the American West, who still bemoans my daft decision to do British and Colonial American history in grad school (What was I thinking?? He never quite got over it, but is somewhat mollified by my interest in the West now).

So what happens when three historians gather ? The conversation is, in Shirley's spot-on analogy, a ribbon dance. We tell stories, weave together ideas, and, eventually, everything ties together.

Most of our conversation will remain private. But when a Black historian, a Latino historian, and a white Brit historian married to a local Asian-American, walk into a Mexican joint in Sacramento and start gabbing, well… Let's just say a bunch of Ivy League jaws would drop. And they would learn a lot.

I'll tell you this much that emerged from our ribbon dance: Things are a lot more complicated than you probably think. Oh, you already knew they were complicated? Trust me, you ain't heard nothing yet.

The conversation about Shirley's first visit to Georgia in the 80s (she's a native Californian, while I lived in Georgia 23 years), was worth the price of admission alone, had we sold tickets. Which, on reflection, we probably should have.