Balm in Gilead
Campaign Background …
It’s July of 1934. FDR is President, and his New Deal is rapidly gaining momentum and support as America struggles to pull free of the Depression. FBI agents are the nation’s heroes following the recent deaths of John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde; Shirley Temple, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are its darlings in black and white. Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington dominate the radio. The last American war was decades ago, and rumblings from Germany and Italy are still vague. A decent job, if you can find it, can bring in around $1300 a year; a gallon of gas is a dime and a good lunch is fifty cents. The Farm Bankruptcy Act just passed, Prohibition is mercifully over, and Americans are becoming cautiously optimistic.
… for Black America
Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of … my people recovered? – Jeremiah 8:22 KJV
But if you’re black in America, things still seem very much the same. Unemployment for black folks is still twice the national average – nearly 44%. Menial, low paying jobs usually delegated to “coloreds” have been taken by whites. The armed forces are segregated and position black soldiers in support roles only. Some young black men have found their way into all-black Civilian Conservation Corps work camps under the New Deal’s National Recovery Administration, but the large majority of black Southerners remain unemployed or in sharecroppers’ debt to white companies or plantation owners. You’re still treated as second class citizens, and there seems to be no end to the cycle of poverty. Black women still push against the double burden of being black and female in a time and place when neither adjective is assigned value by the world at large. A few determined, talented, or lucky individuals have made it to more prosperous areas, like the nearby city of Memphis, big northern cities like Chicago or Philadelphia, or one of the all-black colleges like Tuskegee Institute or Spelman College. Even with the Harlem Renaissance, black America still fights for recognition and identity, even within itself: colorism (the valuing of lighter skin tones to darker skin tones within the black community) is rampant, and thousands of dollars are spent each year on hair straighteners and skin lighteners.
(Want to see what the Great Flood of 1927 looked like? Watch a little of this.)
Character Guidelines and Ideas
Me — who?
I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. – from “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
All characters in the campaign are African-American, although skin tone is up to you. All of you have a connection to the town: you could be a born and raised native, a recent transplant looking for better days, a representative of a black-owned business looking to make a deal, a local boy or girl made good back for a visit, a researcher from one of the black colleges looking into the town’s curious fecundity, a reporter from one of the black newspapers, a writer doing research on black folklore, a restless big city kid sent back to Southern relatives to (oh, the irony) keep him out of trouble, or maybe one of the many unemployed drifters who figured Gilead was as good a place as any to stay a spell. Find a concept you like and send me an email with a brief description, and we’ll do the actual rolling up the next time we get together. In the meantime, dig around Google images and see if you can’t find a good black and white photograph of your character, and we’ll post it along with your bio to the Characters section.
Sources of inspiration for Gilead, its environs, and its inhabitants:
- the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Eudora Welty (including her collections of WPA-era photographs, Photographs and One Time, One Place: Mississippi During the Depression), and Harper Lee.
- the music of Bessie Smith, Merline Johnson, and other blues and race record artists too numerous to mention (c.f. The Copulatin’ Blues)
- R. Crumb Draws the Blues
- the novels of Walter Mosley, especially the Easy Rawlins series.