Friday, September 23, 2016

A Matter of Freedom

Juanita Nelson (1923–2015)
From War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing

Juanita Nelson in front of her home in Deerfield, Massachusetts, 2010. Click on the image to see the house in the background. (Wikipedia Commons)
Juanita Morrow Nelson was arrested for the first time in 1943. A student at Howard University and secretary of the campus’s NAACP chapter, she participated in a sit-in at a segregated Washington D.C. lunch counter. The students ordered hot chocolate and were denied service. “Well, we have plenty of time. We’ll just sit here,” she recalled saying. They were eventually served but charged twenty-five cents each rather than the advertised ten cents. Each of the students left only a dime, walked out, and were promptly taken into custody.

That same year Juanita met her husband Wally Nelson, and for the next six decades—until Wally’s death in 2002—the couple were a familiar presence in the civil rights, tax resistance, and peace movements. To avoid paying taxes that would go to military spending, they kept their income below taxable levels and, beginning in the 1970s, chose to live a virtually self-sustaining existence on a small lot near Deerfield, Massachusetts, without electricity or running water. “It seemed logical that the less we participated, the less we’d be giving to that system,” said Wally. A stanza in Juanita’s song “Outhouse Blues” drolly conveys the challenges of their Thoreau-like existence:
Well I try to grow my own food, competing with the bugs.
I even make my own soap & my own ceramic mugs.
I figure that the less I buy, the less I compromise
With Standard Oil & ITT & those other gouging guys.
Oh but it ain’t easy to leave my cozy bed
To make it with my flashlight to that air-conditioned shed.
When the seat’s so cold it takes away that freedom ecstasy,
That’s when I fear the simple life maybe wasn’t meant for me.
But, as the song progresses, such inconveniences are weighed against the benefits of living off the grid, and she concludes, “Long as I talk the line I do & spout my way-out views / I’ll keep on usin’ the outhouse & singin’ the outhouse blues.”

Juanita published a number of articles and essays, some of which were included in the 1988 collection A Matter of Freedom and Other Writings. The title selection, perhaps her most famous work, describes with characteristic aplomb and humor the day in 1959 she was arrested in her bathrobe.

Lawrence Rosenwald, who knew the Nelsons, shares additional information and recollections in the headnote preceding the essay.

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In March 1959, I hunted through the Sears-Roebuck sales catalogue for something to throw around my nakedness when I emerged from the bath or lounged around the house, an economical garment to double as a beach robe. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.