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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Ben Tucker Zoom Visits

The Humanities 3 class with Brandon was treated to a zoom visit from author and storyteller Ben Tucker, who grew up in Jim Crow South and moved as part of the Great Migration to California in the 1940s. Before sharing personal anecdotes, Ben, upon learning that we were reading The Great Gatsby, gave us a vision of the Harlem Renaissance, which was happening simultaneously with the fictive world of Gatsby. He described how World War I had actually given African Americans an opportunity in the racist world of early twentieth century America. The 369th division of the Infantry (known as the Harlem Hellfighters) had won such fame and recognition during the war (they fought with the French because American white soldiers refused to fight alongside them) that a parade was given from Fifth Avenue through Manhattan all the way to Harlem. This inspired W.E.B. DuBois' "Second Front." African Americans would continue to show their talents as artists, who were funded by money DuBois raised to come to Harlem to write, sing, paint, and play music.

World War II was yet another opportunity, Ben pointed out. The West Coast needed workers, and they hired African Americans and women! Ben's father moved out and found a job. Ben and his family followed. This is where Ben began telling us personal anecdotes. His grandmother was left behind in Louisiana, and before Ben left her, she had given him a Teddy Bear. During the train ride, because Ben and his mother had to sit in segregated cars that were full of smoke, he had gone to get fresh air between the cars. At the age of five, he thought his bear needed some too, but when he held it out, the wind ripped it from his grasp, and he was traumatized. Once in California, he wrote a poem, which he read to us. At such a tender age, he already grasped the evil of segregation. His real loss was of his grandmother, and it was Jim Crow who had taken her from him.

He spoke at great length of the opportunities that California presented. He had indoor plumbing. He could go to school. After living in the Bethlehem Steel Housing his father was able to build the family a home. One of our students asked Ben what the real difference was living in California compared to the Jim Crow South, and Ben's answer floored us. "In California there was segregation but it was 'de facto segregation.' In California, there was Jim Crow, but it was 'soft Jim Crow.' But in the South, there was the threat of death." He then told us the story of his grandfather, whose family had built up a reasonable business selling wood for pulp. They had built themselves a fine home on their land where they lived in some degree of comfort until one night they came. A group of jealous whites drove his grandfather and his family from the land. They were never able to return; they lost everything they had built.

Ben filled the hour with stories. One of many takeaways from sharing the Zoom class with him was that it took two terrible wars to break through America's racism to let in cracks of opportunity and hope for African Americans. That both wars were positive developments for Ben, his family, and countless others brought home how dire and hopeless conditions were.

I'll end with Ben's poem, written when he was five years old.

Mr. Jim Crow,

Let me be!

Why did you take my Teddy Bear from me?

Why are you always picking on me?

Why don't you just let me

Be me?

Humanities III, Sonoma Academy, March 10, 2021


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