Bloodpot and Melting Pot: Woody Guthrie and “Old Man Trump”

In 1950, Woody Guthrie leased an apartment from Donald Trump’s father, Fred, in the Beach Haven complex, near Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. As Woody’s biographer Will Kaufman writes in an article published today on The Conversation, it didn’t take too long before Woody “was already lamenting the bigotry that pervaded his new, lily-white neighborhood, which he’d taken to calling ‘Bitch Havens.'”

Fred Trump — Woody called him “Old Man Trump” — “came to personify all the viciousness of the racist codes that continued to put decent housing – both public and private – out of reach for so many of his fellow citizens,” Kaufman writes. As Woody put it, Trump had drawn a “color line” and “stirred up” hate “in the bloodpot of human hearts”:

In his notebooks, [Woody] conjured up a scenario of smashing the color line to transform the Trump complex into a diverse cornucopia, with “a face of every bright color laffing and joshing in these old darkly weeperish empty shadowed windows.” He imagined himself calling out in Whitman-esque free verse to the “negro girl yonder that walks along against this headwind / holding onto her purse and her fur coat”:

I welcome you here to live. I welcome
you and your man both here to Beach Haven to love in any
ways you please and to have some kind of a decent place to
get pregnant in and to have your kids raised up in. I’m
yelling out my own welcome to you

Woody’s “welcome” is echoed by what Arlo has to say about his father at one point in 1913 Massacre. Near the end of our first interview, I asked Arlo what he thought his father found out about being “American” in the course of his travels. The film doesn’t include Arlo’s full answer — how could it! — so here’s that moment from our interview transcripts.

Well, he found out that he was a human being. That he had shared feelings about the values of this country. He loved the idea that there would be a place in the world where people could come, people could be born, and it didn’t matter what color they were, what circumstances they were from, what religion they had, what traditions, who their parents were, who their girlfriends, boyfriends were — he loved the idea that people would rise above all these little petty things. That somewhere in the world there was a whole country of people who valued these ideas. Didn’t mean that not everybody in the government did by the way. It just meant that by in large most people understood, most ordinary people understood, that this was so. And not only that, he believed that if everybody spoke their own mind, and we actually had the tolerance to listen to everybody else speaking their mind, that the overall mind would lead us in the right direction. In other words he had faith in that if everybody could have their say, the country would be all right, and that we would go in the right direction, generation after generation.

Not everybody believes that, even today. There are people who want to cut short other people’s speech. There are people who are afraid that if they say the wrong thing they’d be foolish so they don’t say anything. There are people who believe all kinds of crazy things. But he was convinced that if you let everybody speak—often—and teach them that speaking is—by speaking I don’t mean just talking. I mean speak by what they do, by where they shop, by what they wear, by who they are, by their friends, by all of these things that define us. If we are free to be ourselves a little more in a country where people are not only encouraged to be themselves but love the idea of being in a place where everybody is being themselves. He loved that. That’s why he loved Coney Island. That’s why he loved being there in the midst of all these millions of people running around, everybody different, everybody — you couldn’t even understand half of them, it didn’t even matter. You could still buy something from them, you could still hang out with them, you could still goof off with them, you could still make music with them.

It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department would bring two cases charging that “racially discriminatory conduct by Trump agents” had “created a substantial impediment to the full enjoyment of equal opportunity.” Twenty years previous, Woody issued a simpler indictment:

God dont
know much
about any color lines.

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