Shortly after the election, a friend of mine posted that she was going for a tattoo. The election results had been completely dispiriting, she wanted some “war paint” to help her confront the upcoming years, and did anyone want to join her? Hell yeah, I thought. Good a time as any to cross that line and get that first bit of ink. I’d always loved the idea of tattoos, but I’ve also changed my views and tastes so many times through the years that I was hesitant to inscribe anything permanently upon my body. My wife and I talk of “being nice to future you,” like when you gas up the car after a long day of work, even though you’re tired and just want to get home, rather than saving it for your future self to deal with in the middle of morning rush-hour traffic. Thus, tattoos, as beautiful as they are, seemed the antithesis of being nice to future you. However, the election rather lowered those inhibitions. Yes, I told my friend, I’m in.
I had a few days to think about what I would want. My friend was getting the Feminist Fist—the raised fist of solidarity within the symbol of Venus, but this seemed not quite appropriate for a man, like something a man might get if he were making a career of picking up women at singles bars in Portland (“See this, baby? I’m woke”). I like the basic raised fist of solidarity, but it is perhaps a little generic. I had posted on Facebook, as an inspirational quote for those troubled times, Joseph Stalin’s order to his generals regarding the defense of Russia against Nazi Germany—Ni shagu nazad (“Not one step back”)—and briefly considered that as a tattoo, but as someone who has made a study of mass atrocity and collective violence, well, that didn’t seem quite appropriate (Stalin shows up in the literature rather a lot).
One of the problems with symbols is that you can’t necessarily make them tell the stories you want. You can’t make them stand for all your interests at one time. We associate the cross with Christianity, but if you see someone wearing a cross around her neck, you don’t know what that Christianity means to her, whether she is a lapsed Episcopalian or an Appalachian snake-handler. Put on a cross to show your charitable spirit and love of the dispossessed and downtrodden, and you risk being confused for those people who show up on college campuses with large pictures of dead fetuses screaming at students for their sins. So it goes.
Rather than thinking in terms of symbols, I started thinking of stories. What story would best represent resistance to the nakedly fascist themes that have arisen in this election year? My mind immediately turned to the 1912 strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. After all, most of the workers in these mills were women, and most of those women were immigrants brought over from the low countries in Europe because, at the time, that was where capital was finding its expendable labor force. And I mean expendable—they were working fifty-six-hour weeks and dying at the average age of 26 due to the dust in the weave rooms. Twenty-six, because that’s what happens when businesses aren’t “shackled by unfair regulations,” as we like to say today. In the cold winter months, the mills tried to cut pay for their workers, and the women, some 20,000 of them, struck. Every mill in Lawrence was shut down. The Industrial Workers of the World brought in translators to help coordinate the strike and made arrangements for the strikers’ children to be sent out of state because there was nothing to feed them with there in Lawrence.
Starting in January 1912 and going on through two cold, bitter months of New England winter, these 20,000 women marched through the streets of Lawrence. According to the stories later told about the strike, a group of women meeting after one of the marches were talking about how wages, hours, conditions were all important things but that labor should also offer respect and dignity. The next day, a reporter observed a woman holding a sign that read, “Bread, Yes—But Roses, Too.” Lawrence became known as the Bread and Roses Strike, and the name has also lent itself to one of the labor movement’s most beautiful songs.
So the tattoo I got is one that tells this story because, as I said, this story is the absolute antithesis of the vision of America put forward by the party soon to be in power (and to hell with future me if he doesn’t like this story). After all, this is a story of women fighting for respect. This is the story of immigrants fighting for dignity. This is the story of workers fighting for their rights, together, across the boundaries of language and ethnicity and nationality and race that separated them, not waiting for some billionaire strongman to rile them up with vague promises of greatness and then wash his hands of them first chance he gets. And yes, it’s easy for me to go down to the tattoo parlor and get a bit of ink that doesn’t really do justice to the blood shed by our ancestors. But that’s why I am telling this story on Thanksgiving—because it is easy. It’s easy now because people struggled so hard to make their future, our present, so much better. They handed down to us a forty-hour work week that they themselves did not enjoy, with days like this off in order that we might give thanks. They handed down to us laws ensuring that our Thanksgiving feast today will be safe to eat because they had to make do with so much worse, because there was a time when meat packers literally mixed sawdust into bologna, not caring who got sick from it so long as it was cheaper to make. Our ancestors handed down to us homes that won’t give your children lead poisoning and cars that are safe to drive. These things were never the gifts of benevolent political and financial leaders—real people had to fight for these, on all fronts, to make them happen.
But most importantly, our ancestors handed down their example to us. They showed us what was possible to achieve. Hell, most of the labor unions in the nation didn’t want to go anywhere near Lawrence, didn’t think it remotely feasible to organize immigrants of so many different backgrounds. Conservative thinking always throws up roadblocks like that. But we have radicals in our collective family tree, and we need their example now more than ever these days as we confront a political faction determined to dismantle the very idea of “commonwealth.” Yes, we have our Declaration of Independence, but our Constitution is a declaration of our dependence upon each other, for it opens with the words “We the people…” And the people to whom we belong is not limited by the boundaries of time. As the folk singer Utah Phillips noted, time is an enormous long river, and we can reach down into it, down into the past, and take from it what we need for the present. What we need to confront the evils facing us now.
That our lives are not “sweated from birth until life closes,” that we experience the potential for so much joy, depends upon those who experienced so little. They fought for us, they live through us today, and we must give thanks. And we must, in turn, work hard to be good ancestors who might live on in the joy of future generations.