December 1, 2014

Issues of Class, Gender, and Politics

The photograph on the left is an image of the Richeleau Mine Pit near Virginia, Minnesota. Like many places, it reflects the unique beauty of the Iron Range. But this landscape has a subtext. This point on the landscape may change radically. To comply with a contract that gave the corporation mineral rights, the state will move Highway 53.  So this site might become the new access road into Virginia, Minnesota. Land isn't just land, it's "tonnage." Trees aren't just trees, they are "board feet."   These terms, economic measures, reflect the need for people to find economic support.  

To write about the Iron Range and the landscape of northeastern Minnesota is to write about issues of class, gender, corporate power, and economics. To write about people who live in this region is to confront limited choices caused by conflicting interests and the effects of privilege (or lack of it).  Competition for limited resources can bring out the ugly side of human nature. As a writer, I feel it is important to trace these tensions. They are the context and background of the poems and stories. They are the soil from which the narratives rise.

Here are some highlights from "Race, Class and the Creative Spark," an interview in the Nov 30, 2014 NYTimes
According to Justen Simien (Dear White People): The best stories hold a clean mirror up. They take the chaos in our experiences, strain them through the point of view of a storyteller, and give context and insight to our lives. Race and class issues especially need this mirror, as more and more of culture seems reticent to even admit these issues still exist, let alone address them. 
Ken Burns writes: For me, struggling to comprehend and interpret a complex and often contradictory American past (and therefore also an American present and future), race and class — and other social issues — are unavoidable. The central obligation of my work is to somehow honorably integrate these issues into a larger American narrative. To isolate them, out of context, is to perpetuate — in the case of race particularly — a kind of artistic and intellectual segregation.
The history of the Iron Range is diverse, and it is full of tensions. Corporations leave permanent marks, but so do many other things. In the early 1900s, over forty languages were spoken. Immigrants shaped the culture, the language and the heritage.  In my research, I've learned that the same era was influenced by the rising membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Along with its dreaded racism, the Klan was strongly anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-teaching of evolution in the schools. The Iron Range had cross-burnings.  Yet, the Iron Range culture also displayed progressive trends regarding education, women's rights, labor unions, and social welfare programs.  I agree with Ken Burns. Writers should work to integrate social issues into the larger American narrative.  Tensions are part of the landscape and the characters of the people. Voices need to be heard, and they need to be connected to the heart. This complexity contributes to the art.