It would be 61 years in the future, not 53. And the people leaving Southern towns in a new Exodus would be Latino, not black. But otherwise, Ray Bradbury was eerily prophetic. Bradbury, who died June 5 in Los Angeles at the age of 91, was a writer of science
fiction only in the sense that some of his stories were set on other worlds or in alternate realities — there isn’t much science in them. What there is in abundance is a revelation of interior life and what he once described as an effort to prevent the future, which meant arresting the disturbing present. The threat of nuclear annihilation was part of that present, and so was the national nightmare of racial segregation and lynch-mob violence. In “The Million-Year Picnic,” a couple and their three sons land on Mars just as everything on Earth goes dark. The boys believe they are on a vacation trip, and when they ask to see the Martians, Dad shows them their reflection in the waters of a canal. Maybe humanity, as new Martians, can get it right this time.
When I first read last year about the hapless farmers of Alabama and Georgia, whose workforce of skilled but undocumented pickers had departed en masse ahead of the new laws that would have got most of them jailed and deported, something clicked. The farmers were complaining that legal locals just couldn’t hack it. Wayne Smith, a tomato grower in northeast Alabama for 25 years, told the AP he’d never been able to keep a crew of American workers for any length of time. “People in Alabama are not going to do this,” Smith said. “They’d work one day and just wouldn’t show up again.” Millions of dollars worth of crops were going to rot in the fields.
That news from Alabama brought me back to 1952 when I was 12, addicted to EC Comics, from Weird Science and Mad to The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. In the early 1950s, EC began publishing illustrated stories by classic writers of gothic fiction, such as Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe (safely dead and in the public domain), as well as the living, breathing, 30-ish and copyrighted Ray Bradbury. After the first of these appeared, Bradbury sent the publisher a pleasant note saying that his check must have gone astray. EC apologized for the misappropriation, sent him some money and a contract, and over the next few years published about a dozen illustrated Bradbury stories.
I’m pretty certain one of those stories was titled (in its comic book form) “The Day the Negroes Left the Earth.” In his short-story collection The Martian Chronicles, the title is “June 2003: Way in the Middle of the Air,” which was first published with that title in the magazine Other Worlds in July 1950.
Like “The Million-Year Picnic,” “Way in the Middle of the Air” looks to a new beginning. Samuel Teece, proprietor of a hardware store somewhere in the South, is on the porch of his shop with Grandpa Quartermain and some neighbors, and one of them asks if he’s heard about it.
“The niggers, the niggers.”
“What about ’em?”
“Them leaving, pulling out, going away, did you hear? … Every single one here in the South.”
The women of the town come running to find their menfolk. Clara Teece implores her husband to come home because their maid, Lucinda, is leaving. But he’s got problems of his own, and we see them unfold as he tries to deal with two black men, sometime employees, from among the multitudes now tramping down the street past the hardware store, on their way to the rockets that will take them to Mars. The social conventions that have governed race relations in the Jim Crow South prove insufficient to allow Teece to exercise his normal command over them, and both go on their way. The last of them, a 17-year-old named Silly, turns as he leaves and calls to his tormenter, “Mr. Teece, Mr. Teece, what you goin’ to do nights from now on? What you goin’ to do nights, Mr. Teece?”
“What in hell did he mean?,” Teece wonders, and is enraged when it dawns on him that Silly knows of his participation in a gang of night riders. He recalls the “many nights of the wind rushing in the car, flopping their hair over their mean eyes, roaring, as they picked a tree, a good strong tree, and rapped on a shanty door!”
Later, after a failed attempt to chase down and shoot Silly, Teece and his friends are back on the porch as the rockets blast off into space. “Did you notice?” Teece says. “Right up to the very last, by God, he said ‘Mister’!”
Wounded white pride, if not on the order of Teece’s resentment, would seem to account for much of the animus that has propelled the anti-immigrant campaign. The illegal immigration of Polish janitors, Irish nannies and Greek busboys, among others, never seemed to be much of a problem, even when it was common in the ’70s and ’80s — but our nativist rabble has been angry that, in the words of a 1981 New York Times editorial, “We’ve Lost Control of Our Borders.” (And they weren’t referring to Canada.)
The Obama administration’s overzealous ICE raids and deportations, Arizona’s “papers please” law of 2010, and the even more aggressive anti-immigrant laws passed last year in Georgia and Alabama, all seem to have brought the system to the point of collapse. South Carolina, apparently gripped by Antebellum nostalgia, tried to escape a similar fate this year by carving out exemptions for faithful field laborers and household servants, which would seem to defeat the original purpose of the law requiring employers to verify the immigration status of all new hires.
Even in the Pacific Northwest, migrant workers are avoiding chance encounters with the authorities: In Washington state, third-generation grower Al Robison told CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy last fall that for all the unemployed people in the area, he still can’t get “American” workers — Tracy’s word — to pick the required 8,000 pounds of apples, per person per nine-hour day, for $150. (I wonder why?) The state’s apple crop, worth $1.4 billion a year, might not survive long term, said Bruce Grim, state ag-industry executive who wants an expanded official guest-worker program.
As Bradbury sensed in 1940s Dixie — the only change in his 2003 setting seems to be the availability of rocket travel — the old order is once again under tremendous strain. Voting citizens who get hassled on the highways and whose non-citizen friends, relatives, and co-workers have been deported or slammed into ICE detention, are mad as hell — not exactly fired up and ready to go for Obama. The businesses — agriculture, construction, landscaping and others — long dependent on cheap, reliable immigrant labor, will now have to fight their right-wing allies to reverse policy or somehow convince “American workers” to take on hard manual labor for Third World wages.
On their way out, the undocumented may say “Señor,” but it will carry the same sneer as Silly’s “Mr. Teece.”