Westward Race

Several years ago I read a book called Women’s Diaries of the Westward Movement. One thing that became clear from that book and subsequent reading, is that the majority of women took that hazardous journey, not because they wanted to go, but because their husbands went and they were basically dragged along for the ride.

What fascinated me researching this was that it was extremely rare for a woman to go alone. I came across one incident of a woman who traveled alone, and she had to hire men to help her. Her reason for going? To find a husband.

I was intrigued by this lack of women taking on that challenge alone. Since then I’ve felt I have a western story floating around me. I even started one a few years ago with two sisters who take on the journey. But the amount of research needed intimidated me and I never followed through.

Today on NPR I heard a story about a mother and daughter who traveled west on the Oregon Trail without a husband or father. They settled in Oregon and lived out the remainder of their lives. I again was fascinated by this. Two women taking a covered wagon and oxen and their worldly possessions and heading out. Leaving safety and security for the unknown and danger.

Then I realized that the NPR story wasn’t about two women traveling west. It was about two African-American women traveling west. The narrator talked about how most people, when they picture that covered wagon, picture a white family, and how there were a lot of African-Americans who also took on that chance for a new life.

I found myself at first a bit irritated, to be honest. With the knowledge that it was so rare, and so dangerous, for a woman to do this alone, why did race have to come into the story? I wondered when we, as a people, would tell a story without having to define it by race.

And then I thought about these two women. I realized that these two women had to face even more danger, even more obstacles, simply because of their race. So an event that was rare to begin with, became even rarer. These two women stand out in history because of both gender and race.

They must have been incredibly strong women. The NPR piece didn’t explain why the mother and daughter took on this challenge in spite of obstacles in their path. What would have sent them out their door? What did they have to face and overcome and surmount? Did they find happiness at the end of the trail? Did they have regrets?

So many questions. I’d have the same questions no matter what their race.

I wish I could have known them.

I wish I knew their story.

5 thoughts on “Westward Race

  1. It’s a sometimes difficult thing, mentioning race. I’ve seen it mentioned gratuitously and even harmfully, and I’ve also been really glad for its mention when it mattered — as in the case of these women, for the reasons you realize. I think about this in my writing, and even in my conversation (which is, to me, a kind of writing), because we live in a world where the default is assumed to be white, i.e., if someone’s race isn’t mentioned, we all think they’re white. Since I am not this default, I find myself wanting to mention race, just to make the point that there are other colors besides the default (I do believe that not questioning/breaking the default makes it stronger than it needs to be). But then I’m not happy either, because I hate having to point out someone’s race all the time, as if that were all that defined them, or as if it were always the most important thing; and anyway, if I start pointing out everyone’s race, then whiteness is no longer the default, and soon I have to start naming that too, and by that time it’s all grown literally too cumbersome for words. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do about this.

    Your post brings to mind, though, a romance novel I recently read, Beverly Jenkins’s Always and Forever, which is about a group of African American women who go west in the 1880s. I assume it is a decent historical romance, which is to say, reasonably well-researched but bad guys always get their comeuppance and the main characters don’t get too-too scathed. I don’t know if you’re into romance, but since I am (when it’s intelligently written), I was all over the premise and setting of this one!

    • You’ve caught on to something I have a hard time explaining. That it bothers me when I’m reading or listening to a radio show, and the person has to tell me what race someone is. Shouldn’t the story be able to stand on its own without that? Shouldn’t we, as a people, be past defining someone by color/gender/sexual orientation? I know that’s too idealistic but I always ask, why do I have to be told, and does that distract from the story being told, or give it more or less importance? And then reading your response here, I realize that you’re right, if race isn’t defined, people go to the default. Which also bothers me. Obviously I have no answers except to monitor my own story-telling. Which can be difficult because if I don’t define race in a story, people assume my stories have no diversity because they can’t see the character as I do in my mind. So what is left? Using cliches to describe someone? That does the exact same thing as simply defining. Now my thoughts are all twisted up.

      • Yes… it’s tricky. It seems a more elegant solution to try to describe people obliquely rather than coming straight out and declaring their race, but even then, it’s not easy. Do I say what someone’s eating, wearing? Do I give them a particular way of speaking? Then it’s almost even more complicated because these things veer so easily into (often unintentional) stereotype. It is a bit of a minefield no matter what, but I think it’s so important for us to try, because otherwise the default just sits there and gets more powerful. I think of all the tweets that came out with the first Hunger Games movie, when lots of people were angry that certain characters were cast as actors of color — even though the characters are described that way in the books. The white default was so strong that even literal description was not enough to get these readers past it. That makes me sad/furious on so many levels, and it’s part of why I think so hard and often about diversity and how we see (or don’t see) and talk about (or don’t talk about) it.

      • You know, your comments here need to be a blog post, not buried in this comment field. More people need to think about this.

      • Maybe I will make a postscript to my recent series 🙂 After I figure out how to articulate the last post, that is. It’s been giving me trouble. As I just wrote to my friend Kuukua, I’ve got drafts and notes on the drafts and notes on the notes.

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