After the 5,000-year-old body of the Iceman (later named Otzi) was discovered preserved in a glacier in the Alps in 1991, scientists began examining everything they could about this person — in order to better understand the past and its importance to the present. Among the many things they discovered about the Iceman was this: he carried with him fire-lighting tools which included tinder fungus, flint, and pyrite. Fire enabled him to cook food, to stay warm, and to ward off wolves and other predators. It was a life-saving gift.
What does this have to do with today’s struggles for social justice and my current-day YA novel, The F Words?
During the Sixties and Seventies I participated in and helped build demonstrations for social justice: calling for an end to the war in Vietnam and demanding equal rights for Black Americans, Latinos, women, and other oppressed groups. Although the majority of us demonstrating then, as now, were young people (in their teens and twenties), there were many, many older adults present. Some in their forties, some in their eighties. And every age in between.
Many of these adults had fought in and built massive demonstrations and strikes during the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and even into the McCarthyite Fifties. They fought against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. They helped build important strikes led by the industrial unions: Auto Workers, Steel Workers, Teamsters, and others. These adults were heartened by the student radicalization of the Sixties — and they were eager to impart their knowledge of how to organize and how to protest. They carried with them the gift of fire and knew they had to share it.
Those adults are no longer with us. But we who were students during the Sixties are now adults, and so many of us are eager to share our gift of fire — the lessons we learned from those who came before us, and the lessons we learned on our own as we built mass demonstrations for social justice in the Sixties and Seventies.
And that is what The F Words has to do with the Iceman and his gift of fire. The F Words, set totally in the present, nonetheless has gifts from the past imbedded in it. When teen Cole Renner is unjustly suspended because he fights back against a bully, he, with the help of his friends, comes up with slogans; constructs protest signs with those slogans; prepares a sign-up list; contacts the media; and divvies who-does-what tasks with his friends. Although this all takes place in the present, it is based on the lessons of the past. Constructing picket signs today (2×4’s, poster paper, liquid marker, staples) is not very different from constructing them during the Sixties. Or, for that matter, the Thirties.
Cole’s father is in Cook County Jail for supposedly inciting-to-violence. While serving his 120-day sentence he leaves his new bullhorn at home, where Cole decides it’s just what he needs to talk to fellow students. And in talking to them, Cole relates his problem of being unjustly suspended to the fact that all students face suspension, just or unjust, while having no say whatsoever in their fate. Cole moves the struggle forward (as we did in the Sixties) by demanding student control over suspensions. If he had simply demanded his own reinstatement, he would have been fighting for social justice, yes. But only in that one spot, for that one thing: his suspension. But Cole and his friends Felipe and Treva discuss the things that affect all students, not just Cole. They come up with demands that benefit all students.
And just as we learned in the Sixties, so Cole learns in the present — social justice needs to include everyone. In order for there to be social justice for, say, working class kids (the students in The F Words), there must be justice for Black Americans. For Latino/Latina, Native, Asian-Americans, and Arab-Americans. For gays and lesbians and trans. In The F Words Cole and his friends understand the oppression of others (immigrants being deported, hijabs being snatched off the heads of Muslim girls and women) and support the struggles against those injustices.
Did I ever think, back in the Sixties, that I would write a novel about students who protest social injustice? No: the thought never crossed my mind. But the experiences I had and the valuable lessons I learned never left my mind. They were always there: part of the events and beliefs that shaped me. It stands to reason that, even though I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel, my most deeply-held principles and most vivid experiences would eventually come to the fore — that the fire that shaped me would also help shape a novel.
Fire, when kept alive, does not die out. It lives to be rekindled by others.
The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.