Growing up an Outlaw Woman
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.