A tragedy in South Asia, 1947: Part 1 of reflections on Indian Summer

I am endlessly fascinated by India. I fueled the flames in college while earning my minor in Asian studies, and my last semester in school, having finished already with my senior thesis, I relaxed by taking a double dose of India: South Asian politics and Modern India history classes, right alongside each other. It was pure heaven.

It's funny to have such a relationship with a place I've never been; nor am I of Indian descent. It's the color, the diversity, the charm, the immensely compelling history of the vast subcontinent. There is such massive human joy and suffering, simultaneously living in South Asia (which comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka roughly, for the purposes of my discussion here).  I've written about it before, and in fact I have a journal that I kept for my Modern India class that is full of my musings about all things culture, history, religion, people, language, war, peace, hate, love, and the enigma that is India.

This background with the region is probably why I plowed through Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann. First, the author conquered my number one complaint about history books: most historians aren't great writers. They let all their grammar and style seams show in an effort to ensure the accuracy and professionalism of their historical argument. I am not saying that you should neglect your accuracy in order to write a more compelling story--they are of equal import. But so much history is somehow sapped of its drama and it-s page-turning nature by bad storytellers wearing their scholarly caps. Von Tunzelmann has written a seriously great story, maintaining the intrigue and mystery and human nature that are all there in the pages and documents that recount the last days of the British Empire, as it voluntarily gave up India in 1947.

Americans, not having been much a part of the British Raj and the whole mess of stuff that was happening in India, don't know veyr much in general about this era of the Indian subcontinent's past. Considering Pakistan is one of the most significant countries on our foreign policy plate today, we absolutely should be more aware of the history of this young nation. It is the country that almost wasn't, arguably probably should not have been, and the partitioning that did occur in 1947, as the British prepared to leave the region, wrecked havoc on millions of lives.

I always remember my South Asian politics professor, who shared her family's experience during partition: her parents were from Lahore (which is in modern-day Pakistan) and they were married and left for their honeymoon in Kashmir around the middle of August in 1947 -- exactly when India and Pakistan were to become two new, separate nations from one another. The problem was that British and Indian officials waited as long as they could to publish the new, rather arbitrary and constantly-argued borders between the countries, because they knew there would be violence and havoc. So Prof. Bhasin's parents, suddenly found their hometown across the border, in Pakistan, while they were now in India. They couldn't return; thousands of people were being murdered and hundreds of thousands were crossing the border from one to the other, and returning at the time would have meant almost certain death, rape, robbery, or all three. They never returned, and now live in Mumbai.

Partition was first proposed by those Muslim politicians and leaders in Hindu-majority India who felt they would never be properly represented as a religious minority; there are several historical arguments about how serious a proposition this even was; by the mid 1940s, many people, including the British Viceroy of India, Dickie Mountbatten, agreed that this plan, if it were executed, would unquestionably bring violence and further calcify the divide between Hindus and Muslims in the region--especially those who decided to stay in their present homes, even if it meant they were now a Hindu living in Muslim-majority Pakistan, for example.

The extent of the violence that did occur could never have been predicted. It is hard to read the history of it and not curse at the decisions of all those politicians and officials--British and Indian and eventual-Pakistani--simply writing up the whole thing in your mind as one giant mistake. It is a curious thought to imagine what would have been different today for the region and for the allies of those nations, had partition never occurred. (Also, I should note, it created a third country, Bangladesh, which started out in 1947 as East Pakistan, and became its own independent nation in 1971. Any quick look at a map of South Asia will tell you what occurred: West Pakistan was able to disenfranchise its whole eastern companion, while using its resources. Von Tunzelmann explores the historical evidence that this little piece of land was basically set up to fail on its own, with its geography and infrastructure, and indeed it struggles greatly.)

I have already made this a little bit more of a history lesson than I intended. I just get so into the details of this massive drama, that was going on while we in the UNited States had little worry other than when European nations might have the money to pay back their enormous debts. We were buying homes and building cul de sacs, and gassing up our Fords. While people in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were fleeing their homes for their lives, becoming refugees based on their religious differences (many of which the British had calcified by creating such categories when they arrived, and utilizing divide and rule techniques, but that's another blog post). Von Tunzelmann wrote this stunning, terrifying and beautiful passage about the tragedy of partition, and I found it worth sharing. It brought me to tears:

 In Stalin's famous words, one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic. In this case, it is not even a particularly good statistic. The very incomprehensibility of what a million violent and horrible deaths might mean, and the impossibility of producing an appropriate response, is perhaps the reason that the events following partition have yielded such a great and moving body of fictional literature and such an inadequate and flimsy factual history. What does it matter to the readers of history today whether there were two hundred thousand deaths, or a million, or two million? On that scale, is it possible to feel proportional revulsion, to be five times more upset at a million deaths than at two hundred thousand? Few can grasp the awfulness of how it might feel to have their fathers barricaded in their houses and burned alive, their mothers beaten and thrown off speeding trains, their daughters torn away, raped and branded, their sons held down in full view, screaming and pleading, while a mob armed with rough knives hacked off their hands and feet. All these things happened, and many more like them; not just once but perhaps a million times. It is not possible to feel sufficient emotion to appreciate this monstrous savagery and suffering. That is the true horror of the events of the Punjab in 1947: one of the vilest episodes in the whole of human history, a devastating illustration of the worst excesses to which human beings can succumb. The death toll is just a number.

This paragraph could be about many atrocities, civil wars and holy wars in human history. It is about what happened in 1947 in the wake of the partition of India, East and West Pakistan, but it captures something larger about history and tragedy as a whole. It is impossible for us to produce appropriate responses to these events. And as I've said before, I cannot imagine experiencing it.

On Atlanta's traffic issues and the dismal hope of a better future: In which I present a scathing criticism of the state and the metro counties

I know the Atlanta/Metro Area Transportation Referendum is old news; the vote was July 31, 2012, and it went down in a blaze of glory. Citizens again voted against solutions to our clogged traffic and lack of alternative transportation options. The plan was not perfect, and in fact still included for many surrounding metro counties, plans for more roadways as part of the new options. (Sorry, say what? What??? There was really nothing better you guys could dream up? It's 2012.) But it still makes me really sad for this city, and mad as a citizen who loves it, that we have doomed ourselves to upwards of fifty more years in the traffic quagmire, while our population is expected to increase by about 3 million more people by 2040. Sounds awesome, guys. Can't wait for the daily connector traffic with those extra people beside me, too! But I did feel some hope when I read my August 2012 issue of Atlanta Magazine, which was their inaugural "Big Ideas" issue, including what the editors dubbed their "Groundbreakers," the big things Atlantans and local planners and companies are doing to make this city amazing. I think this is a great city; it has imaginative people, a colorful and quite distinct history, a pretty awesome climate (all things considered), and it's arguably the hub of business and culture in the southeastern United States. That's a big deal; this is where companies set up shop if they want to have access to the burgeoning southern region, which has finally risen--for the most part--out of its difficult historical economic and social stagnation, which plagued the South from the inception of the United States until roughly the end of the Jim Crow era.

And yet we still had to screw up further potential by a fissure that has long cursed Georgia: the legislative relationship between the state (and often, the rural communities throughout the state) and the city of Atlanta. Harkening back to the days of the County Unit System (a topic for many blogs and many books, indeed), those outside the city--and the lawmakers who represent them--are often hesitant to spend time and money doing much that could improve its largest economic asset. That is exactly what has happened historically with the budding and dying and budding and dying of transportation options and alternatives in Atlanta since the 1960s, when cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco were also planning their subways and rapid transit systems. So, we all know where DC and SF stand today, right? And Atlanta, too.

Learning this particular comparison was a revelation, that all three of these transit systems were conceived and planned in the same era; I've used D.C.'s subways and they're wonderful. I can't vouch for San Francisco. But I certainly have an opinion about Atlanta's. And it turns out, the anemic rail lines we have today are a direct result of politics, and people disagreeing, and counties (counties who are part of the metro area, and have a responsibility to the city they depend on and the people who live in the counties) bailing on what once would have been a cohesive plan for a second viable commute option.

I'm looking at you, Cobb County. As my home for five years, I resent the choices your representatives and citizens made long ago, in a little mess that culminated in the Transit Compromise of 1971. It diminishes our entire reputation as a city; I want to believe this city can be even greater, but this is a bit of an important black mark on our future. I might sound a little bitter, but it's nothing compared to the scathing little article assessing the situation in Atlanta Magazine:

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta's past lapses in judgement haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.

At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn't just a one-time blunder--it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region's transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there's no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl [!!!!!!!] is key to the metro area's potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future-type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we'd settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical "undo" key?

The transit compromise of 1971.

I read this whole article and scribbled all over in the margins my own notes (as I do in practically every piece of literature I read, of any kind). Next to this whole intro, I wrote simply, "Ouch!" And then I felt excited. Yes, Atlanta Magazine, please harshly rip this apart. Represent those of us most disgruntled and angry and seeking options that do not exist because of the decisions made by voters and politicians decades ago, representing a far different Atlanta than exists today. Thank you, most seriously, for publishing this article.

The original plan for public transit, MARTA, was to include five metropolitan counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. After several failing votes, the final plan would be for only two of these counties, Fulton and DeKalb--the two the constitute the city of Atlanta. Already, really it was set up for anemic failure. The article explains the issues:

Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.

The compromise in 1971, that we finally got state legislators to agree on, was that MARTA would never be able to spend more than 50 percent of its sales revenue on operating costs, meaning it could never improve infrastructure and expand without finding money elsewhere--namely, in raising the fares and going into a lot of debt. The Atlanta Magazine article goes into the background and explains it all phenomenally. Please read it. There is a lot of politics involved. Basically, this compromise came out of state legislators bullying the city leaders into this, threatening that this whole thing would be dead on arrival, never happen at all, if they did not agree to this condition.

As an aside, this agreement doesn't even make clear sense to me. I mean, I don't see how this limit benefits anyone at all; it looks to only have been a mechanism with which to threaten, bully, and corner Atlanta leaders and lawmakers, a way to say, we'll do what we want and you, Atlanta, you'll have no say in this matter. Stop trying to be the big man on campus in this state. The problem is, Atlanta is the big man, and its potential--economic and social and otherwise--is probably permanently stunted as a result of the state's behavior towards it.

Am I being too harsh? Oh, I'm not done yet.

We had a couple of problems back in the 1960s and '70s. First, we loved the automobile, we were in the middle of a long-term love affair with our guzzling mobiles. Also, white people flocking to the suburbs really, really wanted to remain, steadfastly, separate from the city. That was precisely why they were leaving. Give me my oasis of picket fences, far away from that old wooden ship, diversity. I mean, yuck, right? But as the city has grown and become more diverse, and race relations have improved many degrees from the era of desegregation, the suburbs are also enclaves of multicultural communities. And now, none of us have any other way of getting from the suburbs to the city besides our cars. As the article succinctly and sardonically points out:

"This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation," says historian Kevin Kruse (who wrote this great book on white flight and Atlanta). "As a result, they have been in their cars on [interstates] 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. Their just not moving anywhere."

YES!

The 1960 Census counted approximately 300,000 white residents in Atlanta. From 1960 to 1980, around 160,000 whites left the city--Atlanta's white population was cut in half over two decades, says Kruse [a Princeton professor]. Kruse notes that skeptics suggested Atlanta's slogan should have been "The City Too Busy Moving To Hate." [Atlanta touted itself for much of the 20th century as the City Too Busy To Hate.] "Racial concerns trumped everything else," Kruse says. "The more you think about it, Atlanta's transportation system was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together."

In the early 1970s, Morehouse College professor Abraham David observed, "The real problem is that whites have created a transportation problem for themselves by moving farther away from the central city rather than living in an integrated neighborhood."

Also, we could not help ourselves from building enormous highways, bingeing on federal grants to help us build them

The alluring of roaring around Atlanta in cool cars took over and never let go. Once MARTA was up and running, who would ride a bus or subway when they could drive a sleek, powerful car and ill it with cheap gas? Only the people who couldn't afford the car. MARTA became an isolated castaway, used primarily by poor and working class blacks.

...

David Goldberg, a former transportation reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, says the road-building binge that lead to the gigantic highways that course through metro Atlanta--some of the widest in the world--diminished MARTA's potential. "It's not a single mistake but a bunch of decisions that add up to one mistake -- the failure to capitalize on the incredible success we had in winning funding for MARTA by undermining it with the incredible success we had in getting funding for the interstate highways," says Goldberg, now communications director for the Washington-based Transportation for America. "We were too damn successful--it was an embarrassment of success. Like a lot of of nouveau riche, we blew it before we knew what to do with it."

...

The vast highway system sucked up billions of federal dollars while the state refused to put a penny into MARTA--until the past fifteen years, during which it helped buy some buses. "The sick joke of it all is that we built the place to be auto-oriented and designed it about as bad as we could to function for auto use," Goldberg says. "The highway network we did build was designed in a way almost guaranteed to produce congestion--the land use around all that development put the nail in the coffin." He refers to neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that force cars onto crowded arterial roads lined with commercial activity, which eventually funnel down to one highway through the heart of Atlanta.

I feel strongly that what we delivered to ourselves on July 31 was at least fifty more years of the troubles that have plagued us for the last fifty. This time it might not  be race that's guiding our decision; this time maybe it was economic recession, I don't know. But I agree, once again, with the assessment of Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute and a source for this same article:

The July 31 vote is "an Olympic moment" [here meaning, one of those seminal, deciding moments, like when we were awarded the honor of hosting the Olympics 1996 Games]. "If the vote fails, you have to accept the fact that Atlanta will continue to decline as a metro area."

Harsh, and probably true. I really, really hope not. I am invested in this city, and I love it. And I hate to see its future decided by the disagreements of the counties that compose its metro area. But I can't understand how this is not of the utmost importance in the state senate--this is, after all, the future of the biggest economic center in our state, and one of the biggest and most important in the southeast region. This is a big deal. I am inclined to blame the same idiotic political issues that have plagued the city folk versus the rural folk for a century in Georgia. Let's not have them define a second century, please.

Fact, fabrication, and the Internet

I love pondering issues like this. The Atlantic headline and subtitle pretty much explain it:

"How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit"

T. Miles Kelly encourages his students to deceive thousands of people on the Web. This has angered many, but the experiment helps reveal the shifting nature of the truth on the Internet. 
 

Yes, truth. And the Internet. As the article points out, trust is often built in (or is lacking) in the types of communities depending on it to get the hard facts, the real truth, about things like, oh, history. And with the fractured and anonymous nature of communities and identities online, the entire process of garnering truth and facts from the Internet poses problems; there is a lack of distinct trust.

This is what Reddit, the social news website, does have compared to a website like Wikipedia. Reddit users, with their internal community and forum-based responses and discourse, were able to see the clues and suspicious bits surrounding T. Miles Kelly's students' fabricated experiment in Internet deceivery--an intentional task aimed at exactly this point: who and what is the source of the information you find online?

The Georgia Mason University professor spends a whole semester on this point, in a course he teaches called Lying About the Past. And even though, this time around, Reddit broke open the whole faked case in a matter of hours, the lesson was still there:

The students may have failed to pull off a spectacular hoax, but they surely learned a tremendous amount in the process. "Why would I design a course," Kelly asks on his syllabus, "that is both a study of historical hoaxes and then has the specific aim of promoting a lie (or two) about the past?" Kelly explains that he hopes to mold his students into "much better consumers of historical information," and at the same time, "to lighten up a little" in contrast to "overly stuffy" approaches to the subject. He defends his creative approach to teaching the mechanics of the historian's craft, and plans to convert the class from an experimental course into a regular offering.

There were certainly people, like the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, who are enraged by this kind of flagrant misuse of a website like Wikipedia--where the point is to fabricate on purpose, adding plausible, if slightly far-fetched, tidbits to historical Wikipedia entries and seeing how much they can get away with.

But the whole point is to think more carefully, more deeply, about the source of information. His approach is stunning to me, who until very recently had been a constant student of history courses over the span of two degrees. It is essential to make sure young historians understand these lessons. So I am all for his unorthodox methods. After all, with an online encyclopedia that is built on trust, and especially, on goodwill and a common interest, one can spend a bit of time ruminating on what might occur if someone sought to sabotage such an effort, with tiny and insidious bits of fabricated "history." It is an extreme example of what we know to be existent in many other kinds of sources too, including the heralded Ink-and-Paper-Book.

 

In which discussing my job becomes instead a tangent on why we cannot digitize everything

I work part-time as an Archives Technician at the National Archives at Atlanta. During those days, half of my time is spent in the public area, meaning I am either in the research room assisting genealogists or in the textual research room observing and assisting researchers who are examining and using our original records. Working in the public areas is one of the most important tasks student workers do here, as it supports all the archivists by giving them more time to do the many projects they have going on, freeing them up from time-consuming work with the general public. The other part of my time is split between several tasks. One, which has pretty much been on the back burner since December, is a holdings maintenance project, as everyone who works here is assigned at least one of these, so that downtime that might crop up can be used for maintenance, organization, description, and database creation for and about the many, many collections and materials we have here. Over time, we are entering information about the items in collections and folders into a finding aid, as well as creating a database that helps archivists and researchers alike to navigate each particular collection. There are so many records here at the National Archives that I know we could all do this for the rest of our lives and not complete the task.

I often walk in the bays—which is what you call the giant warehouse-style caverns that hold the endless shelves stacked with FRC boxes, Hollinger boxes, abnormal-sized boxes, cylinders, map cabinets, and marvel at the sheer amount of material they hold. There are four bays total at the Atlanta facility. I cannot even estimate any remotely meaningful number of cubic feet or number of boxes—let alone estimate a number of documents within those. Billions. Kajillions. I laughed at a recent series of online articles and commentaries that were addressing the recent Civil Case Screening Project that NARA has undertaken in the last year (I'll explain soon), in which people objected to the National Archives deciding which records in the enormous backlog of civil cases would be kept, and which would be destroyed. People have been upset for a number of reasons, some founded, most unfounded or unrealistic. My favorite innocent comment came from a woman who perkily suggested these records all be digitized instead, since one of the arguments for destroying a portion of them was due to space constraints within NARA facilities. She proposed digitization as if that was the simpler, easier answer. Clearly this woman has neither spent much time digitizing anything (it is ENORMOUSLY time-consuming and painfully monotonous) nor, obviously, has she ever taken a peek at the cavernous bays I walk through every day I am at work. I think it would be a healthy dose of medicine for each patron, every American citizen who gets angry at the federal government for not being able to locate a record they are seeking by searching for someone’s name, to take a look inside the bays of the Archives for a glimpse at how many things we keep here. Records are not organized by a handy name reference, no. And they never will be if you understand anything about federal records. Nor, also, will they all be digitized. Not ever.

My life is richer, simply because I asked

Or: An oral history project, incredible families, much talk on adoption, China, love, and family, and how I found a title for this project

Last January, I was struck with an idea for a project. I had read a book about a generation of Chinese girls who had been adopted into families worldwide, with a huge number of them becoming part of American families. (I wrote about it too.) Tens of thousands of these girls are growing up Chinese-American, in predominantly upper-middle class families, and they have a distinct perspective on the world, and their spot in it.

 

That Americans have been adopting from Asia is not new information to most people; American families with an adopted Chinese (or more generally Asian--Korean, Vietnamese) child is more and more common in the general public. On the sitcom Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell adopted their daughter Lily from Vietnam, and that diversity is one of the mainstays of the "modern" aspect of the family composition on the show. In your own community, at the grocery store or Target, multicultural families are an ever more common site within the larger populace.

 

What I realized--in one of those sudden ideas that come to mind only when a combination of other triggers intersect perfectly--is that there is an important historical story here, and that I could help to tell it, begin to collect it, with the tools I have. I had been thinking a lot about identity, and the concept of "roots," genealogy, and biology, and thinking about how much, how deeply, it doesn't matter in the end. I had been thinking a lot about how much I want to adopt in my own life. And I had been thinking about the group of people--oftentimes members of Families with Children from China (FCC)--who is here, connected, who live this story every day: the families. Also being a public radio addict, I love podcasts and the new media we have to share stories and collect and share history, and decided the internet combined with an audio format would be the perfect way to tell this story.

 

Over the course of a few months in early 2011, I wielded in and narrowed my enormous original scope, and decided on what would become the final capstone project for my master's in public history.

 

I would collect oral histories of families who had adopted children from China (mostly girls, but a few boys as well), who live in the Metro Atlanta area. They will be delivered in an online format, much like a podcast, and often in small series that connect the stories of various families to each other.

 

I wrote a paper to end the semester, with grand ideas, plans, and notions of this project. Then in the fall, I had to begin to deliver on my many (many) promises. An important thing to point out is that I knew not one singular person in the Atlanta community who had adopted a child from China. I am not in the age demographic of adoptive parents, and I am not even married. Nor do I have kids. I spend a lot of my time at work and at school. So I started cold-calling people, with a very strange request, indeed, when they did call me back or answer my unknown number: "Yes, hi, I am a graduate student at Georgia State, and I am working on a project about families who have adopted children from China. If you are interested, could I explain a little bit about what I am doing?"

 

Strangely, I only felt really nervous the very first time I did a dialing session. That first, painful, jump into the icy water. Turns out, the water was not cold at all. A few returned my calls or answered, and connected me with people who were either more directly involved, or spoke to me themselves. In each case that I have spoken with a mom, dad, or family as a group, I have been allowed a little more access into their lives, and they have shared my project with their friends, people also connected through FCC--the Atlanta chapter and beyond. It has been extraordinary.

 

What began as a few contacts in the fall has snowballed in 2012. I have been graciously welcomed into homes, invited to hear personal tales of how these families became what they are--decisions about family, ethnicity, fertility, biological children, and all other manner of real, complex lives.

 

I ate Chinese food to celebrate Chinese New Year with one very active playgroup, the kids averaging about six to ten years old, and it was a rowdy, wonderful evening, meeting parents and further discussing and explaining this project and my goals.

 

I watched a rehearsal performance of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which has become a haven and passion for a number of adopted Chinese girls over the years, many of whom continue to dance into high school and college.

 

I was invited to a monthly book club begun by mothers of adopted Chinese girls and boys, who found there was a need to read the literature (spanning many topics) on kids, adoption, China, parenting, and a number of issues within these topics, and that reading them together was more meaningful. I have begun attending them, and the most striking note I took away from my first session was that there are issues of confidence, perception from outsiders, and even simple semantics that arise in every adoptive mothers' mind, and that the support from small groups like this one is indispensable for these women. It was so lovely to sit and discuss their most recent selection, Lucky Girl, with them--quite frankly, most I did was listen.

 

I listened to one mother console another on the fear that she, who had never had children biologically, somehow loved her daughter in a less, or different, way than the mother who had two biological boys before adopting her Chinese daughter. This second mother listened earnestly, and then vehemently countered that, having both, she promises there is not one thing different in the love for each of her three children, biological or adopted. She repeats this for emphasis, staring her friend straight in the eye. She is brought to tears when talking about it further.

 

It is moving. There are many times I am near tears in working on this project. The stories, the love, the shared experiences are so moving. I am up to my ears in adoption stories, and pictures of young, growing, and grown-up families; it only makes my conviction and desire to adopt stronger, if that was possible.

 

I was invited by two girls, ages 8 and 9, to watch the videos their older sister (film-producer earning her master's at Columbia, might I add) made of their respective adoptions, after I had finished interviewing their parents. It was the first time in the course of this work that I watched, in moving picture, the moment when a little two-year-old met her parents and sisters. It was remarkable, joyous, and scary, and sad all at once--many in that room captured on film feeling so many varieties of emotions all at once. It is a moment not everyone would perhaps want to share with me; I was honored, yet again, by their gracious invitation into the lives of others.

 

Is it that adoptive families tend to be willing to share, because they are used to being the ones in the room who created their family in a manner somewhat different from "normal"? I don't know the reasons, but I am grateful for their positive responses to this project, the excitement some have expressed, and the thanks others have shared. We all recognize that these are stories worth telling, collecting, connecting, sharing. I think they are especially rich in the aural format, voices captured in this moment in the lives of these families. The little girls, little boys, teenagers I have spoken to--those voices are being saved, and their notions of themselves are now recorded, as documentation that this is how they felt in 2012, about their spot in this wide world. I giggle, I cry, I am in awe as I listen back to the words and thoughts that I have collected. How far I have brought this, into fruition, into something quite extraordinary--something I wanted but that, if I'm being honest, seemed impossibly large to attempt.

 

I have been invited into homes, back into homes, met kids, siblings, parents, friends, interviewed many of them. I've met with people without the voice recorder on as many occasions, listening and talking and proving that I can be trusted with their family's history.

 

I was most recently offered two beautiful, hardcover books that have been compiled from families' personal photographs ad writings, on the China adoption experience. The collection is from photo collections and families across the United States, who all have this same experience in common. The first of the books was compiled and designed in the basement of the family I most recently interviewed, and they insisted they had "too many copies" lying around, so gave me one of each of these two books. They are cherished additions to the resources I have already compiled as I entered this world to begin work on this project. From one, I found the inspiration to finally settle on a title:

A Thousand Ways Richer:

The China adoption experience in Atlanta, An Oral History

 

I have been shown unbelievable support, consideration, and openness as I have thus far explored the China adoption community in Atlanta. The most striking discovery has been confirmed and reaffirmed by nearly every mother or father I speak to: the adoption of their daughter, son, or multiple children has brought them more than just a child--their lives have been enriched in a thousand ways they could not have imagined before. A child, yes. Also, culture, dance, food, language, history. Also, activity, sports, small businesses, and an entire community of support, best friends, love, play groups. Some who share this initial experience go on to become lifelong friends. One man's Chinese daughter has already made him reconsider his perception on race, and interracial marriage--and she's only eight.

 

I will explore many of these facets in the forthcoming website, where I post the stories and some of the audio. But the quick thesis to this thing, what has inspired the title, is a combination of the thousands of ways life is changed by adoption, and the countless ways I am also richer for knowing these incredible women, men, daughters, and sons. The ways my life has been enriched are too numerous to count, and I would have missed every single one of them if I had shied away from doing this, in favor of something easier, smaller, with people I already knew. It has been exhilarating to know what I am capable of, if I just pick up the phone and ask.

1988: "History will record..."

The day I visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt, I went on Amazon and bought a used copy of Cleve Jones's memoir, Stitching a Revolution. Jones created the Quilt, with a small team, after having a vision of it during a memorial event for Harvey Milk in 1985--years after Milk's death but when the new virus was devastating gay communities--and hitting particularly hard in Jones's long-time home, the Castro district in San Francisco. He is a wonderful writer, and has survived when so many of his friends have not, and he seems to feel that burden, and it comes through in his continued activism, public speaking, and writing over the years. In 1988, the NAMES Project staff and an enormous group of volunteers brought the Quilt to the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. for the second time (a year after its first memorial display), and he gave a speak that can be found on YouTube--filled with emotion and setting much of responsibility for where we stood in 1988 on inaction from the government of the United States, the one country in the world with the most resources to act. The story behind the Quilt, its legacy, meaning, and growth--not to mention the hundreds of thousands of stories contained within its squares--are incredible. I thoroughly enjoyed reading of its provenance and meaning through Cleve's eyes.

But I will not share all of this here. I will share an excerpt from that 1988 speech.

We stand here tonight in the shadow of monuments, great structures of stone and metal created by the American people to honor our nation's dead to proclaim the principles of our democracy. Here we remember the soldiers of wars won and lost. Here we trace with our fingers the promises of justice and liberty etched deep by our ancestors in marble and bronze.

Today we have borne in our arms and on our shoulders a new monument to our nation's capital. It is not made of stone or metal and was not raised by engineers. Our monument was sewn of soft fabric and thread and was created in homes across America wherever friends and families gathered together to remember their loved ones lost to AIDS.

We bring a quilt. We bring it here today with shocked sorrow at its vastness and the speed by with its acreage redoubles. We bring it to this place, at this time, accompanied by our deepest hope: that the leaders of our nation will see the evidence of our labor and our love and that they will be moved.

We bring a quilt. We've carried this quilt to every part of our country, and we have seen that the American people know how to defeat AIDS. We have seen that the answers exist and that tens of thousands of Americans have already stepped forward to accept their share and more of this painful struggle. We have seen the compassion and skill with which the American people fight AIDS and care for people with AIDS. We have witnessed the loving dedication of volunteers, families, and friends and the extraordinary bravery of people with AIDS, themselves working beyond exhaustion. And everywhere in this land of ours we have seen death.

In the past fifteen months over twenty thousand Americans have been killed by AIDS. Fifteen months from now our new president will deliver his first state of the union address. And on that day, America will have lost more sons and daughters to AIDS than we lost fighting in Southeast Asia--those whose names we can read today from a polished black stone wall.

We bring a quilt. It grows day by day and night by night and yet its expanse does not begin to cover our grief, nor does its weight outweigh the heaviness within our hearts.

For we carry with us tonight a burdensome truth that must be simply spoken: History will record that in the last quarter of the twentieth century a new and deadly virus emerged and that the one nation on earth with the resources, knowledge, and institutions to respond to the new epidemic failed to do so. History will further record that our nation's failure was the result of ignorance, prejudice, greed, and fear. Not in the heartlands of America, but in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress.

The American people are ready and able to defeat AIDS. We know how it can be done and the people who will do it. It will take a lot of money, hard work, and national leadership. It will require us to understand there is no conflict between the scientific response and the compassionate response. No conflict between love and logic. Some will question us, asking how could that be. We will answer, How could it not?

We bring a quilt. We hope it will help people remember. We hope it will teach our leaders to act.

There are many, many things more I could share. There is so much meaning, lore, love, and anger contained in the Quilt. Over time, I will share more.

I have also learned so much more about Parnell Peterson and Craig Koller, the two men whose squares I visited, since writing about what I wish I knew and then about visiting their panels. In some way, over time, I would like to share that here, too. I must figure out how best I want to express it, share stories. For now, they are mine, held close, and written in the notebook I've dedicated to the stories I collect of their lives.

On people, or: "I didn't want to start with an issue"

Peter Hessler, former English teacher in China and author of several books on Chinese life and people, both historical and modern, is a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and long-form journalist. In his interview in reception of his prize, he spoke on what it is to write about China and Chinese life, to him:

“There's always been a tendency to see a place like China in very political terms. I think this is partly because it’s a communist country, it’s run by the Communist Party. And from my perspective, living in China, starting especially the way that I started, as a Peace Corps volunteer, in a small community, teaching in a small college, it gave me a very different starting point. And I really wanted to write about ordinary people in China. I didn't want to start with an issue, or start with a political idea, I wanted to start with an individual, start with a community.”

To me this exemplifies the kind of approach that public historians take to topics of history that have traditionally been very idea-based, politically oriented, and top-down in nature. We can look at a country or an issue or a group of people through these high-minded mechanisms, or we can study people themselves, and how they fit into the larger historical fabric. That is a much more important goal, and ultimately more meaningful.

Hessler is a journalist, that is an important distinction; but he writes based in a historical context, referencing the past at each step, and this is also valuable. (I will fight with people who dismiss great books written by journalists.)

Looking at one individual person's perspective can lead towards a dangerous of generalizing based on not enough larger perspective, yes, but it is in knowing the balance, and in incorporating these people into history that we are best served by learning of the past. Genealogy is not real historical study, but it gets people engaged, and that is important. Someone is interested in feeling a personal connection to the past, and that cannot be ignored in our own, professional approaches to studying history.

I am always reminded of British writer and historian William Dalrymple's  fantastic skill for emphasizing the individual's experience of history, as he does in The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857which keeps the reader vividly engaged by showing us the Indian Rebellion of 1857 through the eyes of several key player on the ground. I have never read a book of history in which I felt so deeply connected to the characters of the era, and when they all begin falling at the hands of their enemies, I had a true emotional reaction to the destruction of this city and these lives. I've heard he does the same thing in one of his other works, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India.  An inspiring example--though not without his critiques--of this kind of engaging historical writing.

"Art was not separate from everyday experience."

I spent over two hours of pure joy and pleasure this weekend drinking in an exhibit that told its story with folk art: hand crafted chairs, cotton-picking plows and tools, buttons made of sea mussels, the most enormous mortar and pestle I've ever seen, Victorian- and African-inspired quilt motifs. I can't remember the last time I left a museum in such a giddy rush. I went to the Atlanta History Center for the sole purpose of visiting their many exhibits--for the first time in my life. This is really sad, considering I have a degree in history, I'm earning a master's student studying museums, and I've lived in Atlanta for more than five years. In my defense, I've been there once to see one specific exhibit, and we also got a tour of the innards of the place, including their giant holdings areas down below where they keep the collection pieces that are not on display in exhibits. I have also been to their Kenan Research Center on several occasions for research purposes. But this was my first time going to meander my way through their permanent and temporary exhibitions.

I knew I needed to pick one to highlight for yet another assigned exhibit review for a class (this makes about the fifth review I've done), but I didn't really go in thinking of any one in particular--especially not, for some reason, the folk art exhibit, which I'd heard one or a few classmates discuss before but never given much thought. But this semester, I'm taking a class on Material Culture, on the things we adorn with a human touch, and make with a purpose, be it necessity, pleasure, tool, comfort or any other reason we have to create something. In the wake of this summer's interior design class, I already feel that I am more aware of the conscious designs and historical components surrounding aesthetic, style, and the use of the things around us.

The first two weeks of class already have me thinking even harder about the things we design, make, buy, use, sell, throw away, repurpose. It was truly serendipitous that after a few other galleries, I wandered over to the Shaping Traditions: Folk Art in a Changing South gallery while deciding where next to spend my time. I had been planning to review a different exhibit, for a different class than Material Culture, but here it was in front of me, and there on the introductory panel was John Burrison, a professor at my school and friend of many of my professors, in a photograph with some of the pieces in the collection. I had a memory flashback and realized that I remembered learning that most of this collection--thousands of items--was his--he had been collecting southern folk art since the 1970s, and turned his collection and his lifetime of knowledge on folklife into an exhibit--a stunning and approachable work in itself.

There on the same panel was a name that suddenly meant a lot to me: Henry Glassie. I had only just finished reading one of his books for my class, his 1968 classic within the folklife field, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. I got really excited, and from there, it was several hours later before I noticed how much time I had been spending at each panel, examining each piece of folk craft, studying the selection of photos that accompanied throughout.

My favorite part, obviously really, was the section devoted entirely to southern textiles, quilts, motifs, and influential styles. The designers came up with a truly ingenious method to display and preserve the six quilts within the exhibit: each one rolled out on its own giant display board, once prompted by a visitor who pushes a button--which sits below a description of the type, material, quilter, and estimated year of creation. I must have pushed those buttons more than a dozen times, engrossed in their pattern and fabric choices, old as they were. Each was so beautiful, and they combined to tell a distinctly diverse story of the variety of quilting styles and influences that play into southern quilting.

(Read on for a bit more about the themes of the exhibit; it's worth a few minutes!)

The exhibit was consciously created to revolve around its stunning artifacts, to tell the larger story of the relationship between folk craft and folk art in past and present southern life. The overarching thesis the exhibit aims to impress upon visitors is that there has been both continuity and change in southern folk art, and that the relationship within it—southerners and their handmade products—is an important component in the history of the South.

Subthemes arise when we look more closely at the organization of the exhibit, where the story begins to unfold. The exhibit is organized by subtheme, taking us through the various conversations, one stacked on another, that the curator wishes to share with us. The first message the curator needs to convey is a working definition of what “folk arts” are, which is explained in a number of display cases, via brief panel text, but more through the artifacts that have been selected to prove each specific piece of the definition. Folk Arts, we learn, are many things: they are learned traditionally; they are important community resources; they bring the past into the present; they are adaptable and flexible in shifts of human need; they can be both useful and beautiful; they are handmade in an inherited tradition passed down through generations. These axioms are expressed through a number of specific artifacts: homemade violins using both wood and metal pieces, or woven baskets that have more recently been woven with plastic pieces, or pieces that illustrate handmade characteristics against those of uniform, factory-made pieces.

The second subtheme moves us into the active use of folk arts in everyday life, reminding us that traditional, preindustrial southern culture did not draw a clear line between art and work—but that both were intertwined in each activity—sewing, farming, and cooking included. The exhibit addresses what makes southern folk art “southern” by discussing the interaction of European, Native American, and African cultural groups, and by telling the story of southerner’s lives: living off the land, and using hand-crafted tools to aid them. The third subtheme brings folk art home, in southern living spaces and decorative aesthetics; this includes an enormous section displaying domestic arts past and present, including some present-day artists—pottery, baskets, chairs, furniture, and textiles. The last subthemes take southern life “beyond subsistence”—into leisure activities, and finally, to the revitalization and change that has taken place since industrialization revolutionized the South.

Modern-day artists and immigrant groups who have added their cultural traditions to the South in the last half century are featured near the end of the exhibit space, proving that folk art in the region, while no longer necessary for our work or daily life essentials, is still an important part of our cultural lives; we are surrounded by the artistry and traditional techniques of those who continue to practice and pass on our folk arts. Shaping Traditions tells this story through the objects that define the subject.

Go see it.

Telling stories without paper: human voices and created objects

Without realizing it earlier, this semester I am in two courses that I have been extremely excited to take, and that both deal with forms of historical evidence that are neither paper nor text. The Document is the historian's love, her bread and butter, that which is often the basis of entire projects, which turn into the articles, tomes, textbooks, and popular history books that everyone else reads. In public history classes, though, it is a simple truth that the regular person goes to museums not to read lots of label text and long passages that, though their stories may be astonishing, do involve more words. No, they most often go to see the things that make history come to life for them. Artifacts, small and large, can often be so powerful, say so much with no words. And this is where my classes are taking me. The emphasis in Material Culture is obvious: the objects, created or altered somehow by man, that offer insight into customs, social patterns, lifestyles, foodways, and larger culture of the people of our past.

So too do I find this in Oral History, the other aforementioned class, where our discussions, readings, and projects revolve around the spoken word, in a historical context, and using a proper methodology that puts it far beyond casual conversation. In conducting oral histories, we are formally and methodically documenting the past, in ways that effect immensely both the narrator (the subject) and the interviewer (me).

I find both of these mediums so powerful. I conducted two oral histories earlier this year, after a one-class-period crash course in one of my other classes, and while they were on two very different topics, I discovered the many nuances that oral historians have been raving about since the 1960s; one of the most significant to me was the unexpected paths the interview can take, and also the candidness of my narrators. By asking very simple questions and then shutting my damn mouth, it was astonishing what stories they would tell me, without my ever having to ask them something provocative or controversial. Not that the primary goal is provocative information, not at all. But, for example, I was interviewing a couple in the late forties who have a young daughter they adopted from Guatemala, and there were a lot of delicate and sensitive subjects I wanted to broach with them, like whether or not they would someday tell her about her half-siblings that they knew she had back in Guatemala, or whether they would help her in finding her biological roots, if she ever wanted to know more about them. These were things I didn't think I would have the guts to ask. But I never needed to: the family was so welcoming and so willing to explore their complicated emotions on those subjects, via other more basic questions I had asked within the larger subject of their family and their relationship to Guatemala right now. I know this won't always be the case, and this is a topic I am continuing to work with, but it was an extraordinary first dive into the process, and into the revelations of what oral histories are, and what they do for larger historical projects you are producing.

And material culture, whose roots can be found across disciplines--archeology, folklore, sociology, history--has been enchanting academics in these fields for far longer than I have been alive to ponder its worth. I am not a natural at gleaning information and historical clues from innate objects the way I have been able to do with documents, even though, at their core, neither one is more or less equipped than the other to tell a story about the person who created it. Documents are not purveyors of truth any more than a three-dimensional object that lacks a description or context of any kind. Just because something has words on it, a handwritten letter, say, does not mean we can understand it any better upon finding it than we would a shard of porcelain. My goal this semester is to begin to better navigate and interpret our material past, in more nuanced ways than I have ever known or cared to explore.

Museum staffs, and so, museum exhibits, have as their goal the interpretation of the past, in a way that makes people look at their own lives and relate the past to them, to where they live, to those around them. This can be done very well with historical documents, presented in a cohesive manner, that tell a wonderful story. But, as soon as you add the human voice, and the objects created by men and women in that same story, you have brought the exhibit to life. You have succeeded in a more successful, effective way, in relating the story to your audience, and they will leave remembering it more clearly, and hopefully in a way that connects them to the past, to its utter humanity and enormity.

Henry Glassie, in his book Material Culture, describes our relationship to things in our everyday life, and inspires us to think about them in more significant ways, as pieces that connect us to the larger humanity of the world. After all, if it as not us personally, someone created every single thing in our lives. That is a powerful thought. I leave you with the passion of his words, so inspiring and clearly telling, as he has spent his life studying the Things of People.

Among the new things, the most important, I believe, is the collection: the assembly of gifts, souvenirs, and commodities into a home--the domestic environment in contradistinction to the house. The collection represents a victory over disorder in industrial times, when the flood of goods threatens to sweep us to madness in a rising tide of irrelevant trash, just as the house of stone represented a victory over disorder in the days when people lived close to nature, when the lean wolves came down from the heath and the night winds wailed. But we should not be confused. Today, while we create things out of things made by other people, all across the globe, people in no way less real or alive are going up into the woods and down to the riverside. They are chopping out chunks of nature and fashioning artifacts that display their spirit and serve the serious needs of their neighbors.

"I want to say, this machine isn't just history." The garment industry in history, and in our lives today

If you ever complain about the price of your jeans, I want you to find a sewing machine and try to hem a pair. Granted, the industrial size and strength of the machines they use to produce them on a large scale is much greater than my personal machine, but I hemmed a pair last night and have vehemently given up the practice henceforth. I pulled out my denim-strength machine needles, the kind you buy specifically for denim, and broke two of them on the first leg. I found my pace halfway through, and managed to finish them on the third needle, but I was livid. I have been sewing all my life, and have been learning in earnest for the last three years, and I do not break needles. I decided that if I were to produce a pair of jeans, start to finish, I would charge the prospective buyer $2,000, at least. Obviously, I should not go into the jean-making-or-selling business. But it was a stark reminder that there are plenty of women--and also men and children--whose days are defined by pumping out pair after pair to sell to hungry consumers around the world for amazingly low prices, considering the labor. I cannot tell you how many times, during my years in mall retail sales associateship, I heard parents complain about the cost of jeans. They were especially mad when the jeans  were bleach-washed and "destroyed" (lots of holes and patches, in other words), as they could not believe they were paying more money for something that has been ripped up. As someone who has sat at home and pulled denim threads out of jeans until my fingers bled to get the same look in DIY form, I often held back from pointing out the obvious to them: someone has put many hours of their life into creating this pair of runway-ready jeans for you or your teenager. If you want, buy the regular pair for a whole $20 less, and take them home and try to do it yourself.

There are no new revelations to be had in what I am saying. Sweatshops and the low wages of garment industry workers have been well-publicized over the last twenty years or so, and I do not pretend to have some answer. As long as people need clothes to wear, there will be this problem in the world. But the important thing to remember is that it was not so long ago when the women of the United States were the ones subjected to the long hours, low pay, and back-breaking conditions. It is part of the phenomena of developing nations, that a generation will work very hard in factories to provide better lives for their children, the whole theory being that they can eventually move up a notch in the world. One of the most important lessons about places like Lowell, Massachusetts, which was defined by its industrial factories and garment producers in the nineteenth century, is that those conditions, the ones we thank our grandparents for improving for us--have not disappeared. They have simply relocated. Another group of people carries the burden today, producing clothing for the masses.

Earlier this semester, we read The Lowell Experiment in one of my classes, in which ethnographer Cathy Stanton examines the relationship between historians, a post-industrial city, and the National Park that the city is today. Lowell is still a real, inhabited city, but it is also a historical subject, and a place in the American industrial past that serves as a ground for social scientists to really examine many aspects of the course of American history over the last couple hundred years. What Stanton does the best is remind us that historians do not exist in a vacuum, but are, just by going to a place and trying to learn about it, affecting the results they will find. The relationship a historian has to her subject cannot be entirely removed from the results she will present to her peers and community.

And the other key thing Stanton brings home is that Lowell's history cannot exist one its own, either. People who visit the city-slash-national-park have to be confronted with the notion that these factories, just because they are no longer booming here, does not mean they are gone, that we have cured the world of the plight of the factory worker. She points out one poignant moment on a tour she was on, when the tour guide strayed from his script for a moment and did what Stanton had concluded had not been happening in this place: he connected past and present. His statement:

I want to say, this machine isn't just history. When we built this historical park we had to travel around the world to buy looms. Looms like this are operating as we speak somewhere around the world. It's kind of neat to think about that. And there's no right or wrong answer, there's no easy answer to it, but we can go to Wal-Mart or A.J. Wright or any store, really, and buy really cheap clothing. And what's the alternative? Paying a lot for your clothes? We all work, we all try and and pay the best we can for our cloth. But the reason we can get cheap cloth is because someone around the world is working on these looms, and looms not unlike what we have today. A few years ago, Kathy Lee Gifford was in trouble for using child labor on machines just like this. So it's just something to think about.

One other thing I like to sort of think about is the word "labor." It means "to suffer" in Latin. And when you think about the suffering that goes into making cloth, back in history and even to the present day, it's just something to think about. We wear the clothes, sometimes we don't think especially how hard the person who built or made the clothes worked to produce that. And all that labor, all the suffering that went into building this city, and the results, both good and bad. Just think about that a little bit. And I'll be talking about more of the positive consequences on the way back. But on a hot, sticky day, with this loud machine and the lint flying in the air, it's pretty easy to picture how miserable it would be to work there. (p. 61)

Stanton says it was a stunning moment, where suddenly each person on the tour was confronted with "the phantom figure of the Malaysian or Pakistani mill girl who was laboring--suffering--so that we could buy a t-shirt for a small fraction of what it would have cost to produce in a developed country."

The tour guide was obviously taking a risk, and chose his words wisely, speaking softly around the issue but offering no illusions about what he was referencing. And, the author reported, the other people on the tour, while a bit shaken, seemed to be able to handle it. "This is precisely the goal of progressive public history," she says, "to seize such small opportunities and compound them into larger visions of the process we are all a part of."

I was reminded of all of this not because I hemmed a pair of jeans--although that brought the message of labor and frustration home personally--I was reminded, really, by the remembrance, recently, of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, which 100 years ago went up in flames on a Saturday morning in March, killing more than 100 workers, mostly women and children, due to a shoddy fire escape and other unsafe conditions for its workers. Supervisors would lock their workers into the factory's floors, on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the ten-story building, and so when the fire erupted, many people were left to jump out the windows--usually to their death. In 1911, in an industry of extremes that was subject to the whims of the fashion trends, work of this nature was often relegated to new immigrants seeking to improve their lives. Their average work weeks were 84 hours. These were the victims of the fire, one of the worst workplace disasters in American history. The tragedy of that day, which you can explore in a podcast and recreation of the morning here, reminds us again that such circumstances have not gone away--they have only gone beyond our national borders. It is a kind of labor many of us can only imagine.

It has not entirely left the United States, nor Lowell. Immigrants still hold those jobs, today.

The World's Jason Margolis did a news story on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and its galvanization of the garment industry. (I heard it on Jeb Sharp's How We Got Here history podcast.) He reports exactly the thing that the Lowell tour guide was imparting on his listening visitors, but in more specific way, and with direct connection to the conditions that existed in the Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.

“Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires,” said Robert Ross at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”

According to the Bangladeshi government’s Fire Service and Civil Defense Department, 414 garment workers were killed in at least 213 factory fires between the years 2006 and 2009. Last year, 191 people were killed in Bangladesh in a reported 20 incidents, according to Ross’ research. Last December, a fire killed at least 25 people in a garment factory there.

“And the pattern is disturbingly uniform,” said Ross. “The shops are often in high rise buildings, just like the Triangle. The pattern is that an electrical fire starts, and then without adequate, or any fire escapes, without sprinkler systems, the workers surge to get out. And in factory after factory, the newspapers report locked gates and locked doors. It’s a horrific duplication of what we earlier experienced.”

Even while we may not have answers about these issues, it is important that we be aware, as we put on our clothes each morning, that simply because the factory is farther away does not mean the work has improved any in the last one hundred years. After my frustrating night last night, my hat goes off to all of them, in every factory corner of the world. I hope we can begin to change out outlooks and our consumer mindsets, or at least improve our awareness as a whole, so that we can move towards improvements in the lives of all garment industry workers, not just the ones in the United States.