This week I’m back in the midwest, where my roots are strong and my mother is approaching her retirement years. I’m thinking about the vast geographic and cultural distance –both real and imagined -- between the San Francisco, California where I now live, and the great state of Iowa, which made me so much of who I am.
Here I am, sweating through a ridiculously muggy midwest summer heatwave, thinking about how it is that I am black, a lifelong social justice activist and organizer, and a married, dyke mama who hails from a small, working-class Iowa town where sweet corn and tomatoes once grew in my own backyard.
When I tell people that I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, there is a kind of shocked silence I’ve become accustomed to. I’m used to people’s confusion about how I – given my politics and identities -- could possibly be from such a place. And, while I find it extremely problematic, I’ve also gotten used to a dismissive arrogance about Iowa, a comfortable ignorance about the heartland, and a total failure to comprehend why I long for my Nana’s lilac-lined house at 1339 10th Street and why I have so much hope for middle America.
I work, organize and am raising a family in the “Bay Area bubble” but being from Iowa has developed in me core values that are decidedly anti-bubble, and deeply pro-working America. My ancestors built the wealth of this nation, and I consider the whole place mine – to love and rage over, to listen to and understand, to organize and to challenge. I have not committed my life to social change just for a privileged few on the East and West Coasts. This is, fundamentally about all of us, the 99 percent in San Francisco, through the heartland, down South and all the way to upper tip of Maine.
My four-year-old son was born in San Francisco, and he is a proud Frisco kid through and through. We have a multi-racial community that dances and organizes for justice together, he considers Salvadoran pupusas a special treat, and he loves remembering the day the Giants won the World Series and it seemed like everyone in the city was a member of the same big family.
But today, I’m writing from a cramped apartment in a seven-story public housing building in Michigan where my mother now lives with her scores of books, photography equipment and cute dresses from QVC. She and I are from a clan of Gibsons, black folks from working-class Iowa where my great grandparents worked on the railroads, and where my grandfather slaughtered pigs and went on strike with his white coworkers to defend the gains of their union.
We’re from the Iowa, where my mother attended black churches as a child and found Islam as an adult, and where she, as a struggling single mother, read black feminist poetry and first fought battles with Ronald Reagan’s backwards welfare policies.
We’re from the Iowa that is a center of agribusiness and everything that’s bad about corporate food production in this country. We’re from the Iowa that rallied for Jesse Jackson’s run for president, voted for same-sex marriage, and where Obama won the caucuses back in 2008.
But Iowa has also gone from unionized, inter-racial meatpacking plants to non-union poultry factories that exploit undocumented Latino workers from as far away as El Salvador and Guatemela. We’re from the Iowa that is indeed mostly white, where my first best friend grew up – a sweet white working class red head – and our mothers shared survival stories of single, working-poor motherhood. And I’m from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa that, unlike San Francisco, is actually growing its black population and is home to a thriving center of African American community history.
For most of my adult life, as I’ve been marching against war and racism, I’ve also been defending this Iowa, fighting against the tendency toward self-righteous superiority I’ve found among too many activists in the Bay and on the East Coast. It’s the same arrogance that the Right exploits in its scandalous but effective pseudo-populist campaigns against so-called liberal elitism.
It’s my experience that people on the left think they know what it means to be Iowan. Iowans are used as stand-in for a stereotypical idea of backwards, irrationally racist white America that ‘doesn’t vote its class interests’; Iowa is a convenient marker for everything less cool, hip, cosmopolitan and liberal than, well, San Francisco.
This kind of dismissive arrogance leads to a refusal to develop, in any meaningful, long-term way, an organizing agenda for the majority of the country, and has been one of the errors of progressive politics for a long time.
We can change this. When we are thinking about the politics of immigration policy, Occupy Wall Street, gay marriage, the movement against corporate food policy, or the politics of race, poverty and labor unions, we have to think about Iowa. Think about the white working class Republicans. Think about my mom’s friend in Iowa, raised on an old fashioned farm and now leading an organic farming collective there. Think about the proud struggle for small farms, union work, and participatory democracy there.
And think about what it will really take to make the Bay, Iowa and the whole nation a place where we can all develop our full human potential, have true mutual respect for one another, and are able to struggle through our deep divisions without exclusionary moral superiority, top-down “we know what’s best for you” politics and where all of us who want to live out our old age on a quiet lilac-lined porch in Iowa, can do so in peace and dignity.
As we make our plan to build a new progressive majority, let’s stay open-minded and take our organizing to a whole new level.