Child of a Dark Era
Barbara James of Carmel Valley recalls what her parents went through.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Excerpts from an interview of Barbara James by Maureen Davidson
My parents, Dan and Lillith James, were blacklisted. Not, I think, because of their intrinsic value as targets, but because my father was assistant director on The Great Dictator and the [House Un-American Activities] Committee wanted to get at [Charlie] Chaplin, wanted to get him in the worst way. So they went before HUAC as unfriendly witnesses. They took the Fifth [Amendment], and didn’t go to jail. Our social world was divided into three groups: People who got up there and said, “It’s none of your business, I don’t have to answer this because of my First Amendment rights.” They went to jail. In fact the first one to say that who didn’t go to jail was [singer] Pete Seeger– they wanted him, too, but this was a lot later and the law had changed. The second group said, “I won’t give you what you want, but I stand on my Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate myself.” They didn’t go to jail, but of course they were blacklisted. The third class of people was those who got up there and ratted– they were your friends too… I think that people should never be put under pressure like that; you have no idea of what you’d do if it were you. We didn’t want to be around the people who ratted, but I felt sorry for them… It got very heavy. The whole structure of your community fell apart. My mother’s best friend committed suicide. Lots of people went to Europe to get work; some people stayed and starved. But my parents didn’t go to jail and they didn’t starve, because they had some private money. My father felt very guilty about that. When they were called before the committee, my father fumbled badly, but my mother did brilliantly. She was very beautiful; she had been a dancer and had a lot of poise, though she was scared shitless. She made herself a pretty dress and a pretty hat to go down there. They asked, “Don’t you feel badly about bringing up children in the Communist Party?” She sat there and told them off. They underestimated her, so she had a little time to get something in before they shut her down. Both had become active in youth activities in East Los Angeles, beginning in the late ’40s. My parents had drawn away from the Party years before they were called before the committee in 1951, because the Party sat around and didn’t do anything about Sleepy Lagoon. (Twenty-one young Chicano men were falsely accused of murder, a precedent to the Zoot Suit Riots and the subject of Luis Valdez’s play, Zoot Suit.) They did what came to hand. That became their community. When my mother was really failing and about to die, we sold the big house they lived in, that Charles Sumner Greene stone house across from Highlands Inn– my grandfather built it. We had one last glorious party there and all of her comrades came from L.A. It was great. My father was very pleased with the notion of being a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, 6-foot-6-inch Chicano. That’s what Luis Valdez called him. After he was blacklisted, Poppa got himself into a blue funk because he decided he couldn’t write any more, except as this 14-year-old Chicano boy who was in his head. He wrote about it in the first person and won the Hildebrand Prize under a pseudonym. (Famous All Over Town by Danny Santiago). My mother died thinking that hard times were coming back. I look at the wiretapping, the things this administration is doing, the thing about “be afraid, be very afraid” after 9/11– it’s the old Red Scare. People are stupid when that happens, and scared.