Against experience: the struggles for history, tradition, and hope among Native American people

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Sider, Gerald. “Against experience: the struggles for history, tradition, and hope among Native American people.” Between history and histories: the making of silences and commemorations. Ed. Gerald Sider and Gavin Smith. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Pages 62-77. Key source


A feelingly argued essay which effectively combines Marxist theory with two incidents, each carefully set in its historical and political context, from Robeson County. The first involves a meeting in which Sider was invited to advise a Lumbee group on a contract opportunity to build a factory and manufacture shirts for the Army. Sider's own (and his grandmother's) experience with sweatshop labor, and his strong feelings about class formation, propelled him to argue against the project based on the dangers he foresaw. He found his arguments quickly pushed aside and discovered that, because of a remark he made about substandard housing, he had quite unintentionally offended a women he had expected to be an advocate. The woman's grandparents, he was told, had lived in such housing and gotten by just fine. She saw Sider as criticizing their values and their ways. In discussing this and a later conversation with the woman, Sider describes a complex mix, among working people and minorities, of “cynicism about one's choices, and a more or less subdued longing to both participate in and withdraw from the dominant society (often in both cases probably fueled as much or more by economic pressure as by either envy on dismay), all enmeshed in a hard-won, if partial, cultural autonomy” (p. 71). The second incident involves the impact of sharecropping on agriculture in Robeson County. Sider describes a small farm which had been divided among two sharecropping families, one Indian and one white. One family had barely earned a meager living prior to the division. Now, both families were desperate. Sider was trying to obtain government surplus food for the families and needed the landlord's signature to prove that the families had earned less than $1,200 the previous year. The landlord refused, reasoning that “if you give these niggers free food they won't work” (p. 74). Sider discusses this incident in terms of silence and experience, which are “names for different aspects of this antagonism, this distance, between people and (substantial elements of) their 'own' culture” (p. 75). He urges readers to be conscious of “the struggle between experience and silence; between, on the one hand, what happens to people in fact and in their understanding and, on the other, what is and is not, can and cannot be, discussed, negotiated, socially reconfigured” (p. 75). Sider states, “the same appalling violence that made those farm workers 'niggers' simultaneously made me white and . . . it took a very long time for me to hear, in addition, how deeply I was implicated in the consequences of such actions - as a receiver not only of stolen labor but of stolen lives” (p. 75).

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Sharecropping | Marxist theory | Lumbee Regional Development Association (LRDA)