By any definition, it is safe to say that we are living through tough times.
The global economy is in one of the most extended downturns in decades.
Whole industries that once were the backbone of American industrial capitalism-automobile makers come to mind here-are teetering on the verge of outright extinction. Global warming continues without abatement, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq grind on, and the violence in Sri Lanka has recently reached alarming levels.
Here in Chicago, unemployment rates in black communities like Englewood are estimated to be as high as 33 percent. To give an historical perspective, the peak unemployment rates during the Great Depression were in 1932, when 25 percent of the nation’s work force was unemployed.
Given all this evidence, some people understandably are feeling despair, President Obama’s bromides about the audacity of hope notwithstanding.
Yet there are reasons for optimism, and a book by the late Studs Terkel is one of them.
Studs died just four days before Obama’s historic election last November, but there was no mistaking who he supported.
The legendary and Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian, who produced such memorable books as Working, The Good War, and Race, focused his attention shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the often elusive but undeniably real quality of hope.
Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith During Difficult Times, a work that informs, teaches, inspires and reminds us what a treasure Studs was, is what resulted.
Studs dedicates the book, which draws its title from a quote by farm worker Jessie de la Cruz, to Virginia and Clifford Durr, long-time advocates for peace, justice and equality in the American South.
In the introduction Studs cites their “radiant vision, affirming themselves, saying no to the official word.
“They may always have been in the minority, but it was a prophetic one,” Studs wrote.
Hope Dies Last is written in that spirit.
In typical Terkel fashion, the book is sprinkled with well-known figures like Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Pete Seeger, Frances Moore Lappe, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown, each of whom share their thoughts about where we are as a nation, their own journeys and how the two intersect.
Yet the book also has plenty of people who are less renowned and have at least as important things to say.
These include a pair of married undocumented immigrants from Guatemala talking about struggling to make it in America, Will Campbell, a white southern minister who talks about how his grandfather taught him to respect black people, and a university student who was galvanized into supportive action during a staff strike at Harvard and who acknowledges that he saw the workers differently after getting involved in their efforts.
Chicagoans will enjoy reading the words of local griot Timuel Black, who continues to publish oral history books of his own as he approaches 90 years of age. Black talks about his relationship by blood to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who in his youth was a Ku Klux Klan member. Black recounts his skepticism at his father’s ultimately accurate insistence that the former KKK members would turn out all right as well as his initial meeting with Studs on the way to the 1963 March on Washington.
Others may want to read the words of Kathy Kelly, whom Studs calls The Pilgrim and whose words he uses to close the book. Founder of Voices in the Wilderness, Kelly has not paid taxes to the U.S. government for nearly three decades and has shown her willingness to oppose war and fight for peace by being arrested countless times and serving multiple prison stints.
After one three month sentence in federal prison, she returned to Chicago by train.
Studs was there, holding a single rose.
As with his other works, Terkel’s presence animates the entire work. Like few before, he was able to listen with insight, without judgment and with an intertwined sense of history, story and identity.
His book reminds us that others before us have been through much more difficult times and survived, that the goal, at times, as expressed in the words in words of organizer Eliseo Medina, can be “to inspire other people to cotinue with the struggle,” and that we are truly privileged both to have Studs for as long as we did and to have access to the rich body of work he left behind.
Are you hopeful about the present? About the future? Why or why not?
What Studs Terkel memories do you have?