Republicans decry inclusion of racial slurs in state senator’s 1971 memoir

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, is facing criticism for a 1971 memoir of his time working for a farm that aimed to help black sharecroppers move out of poverty. Jeff Golden campaign photo
October 6, 2022

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, says he printed the n-word to describe and ridicule bigoted language he encountered

By Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

More than 50 years ago, a 20-year-old Harvard student spent his summer picking weeds and harvesting watermelons on a southwest Georgia farm that aimed to help Black sharecroppers rise from poverty. 

That student, Jeff Golden, is now a Democratic state senator running for re-election in a southern Oregon district targeted by Republicans. They seized on the 1971 memoir he published about his summer at Featherfield Farm, “Watermelon Summer,” which contains multiple instances of a racial slur. 

Quotes from the book were first reported Wednesday by Fox News. The Capital Chronicle obtained a copy of “Watermelon Summer” from a university library and reviewed it Wednesday evening. 

After the Fox News article was published, Oregon Republican Party Chairman Justin Hwang said Golden should resign. 

“Anytime you pull back the curtain on Democrats, you see open racism and hate,” Hwang said. “Senator Golden’s vile commentary toward Black Americans is outrageous and unacceptable. Jeff Golden should resign from office immediately.”

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, meanwhile, called on Tina Kotek, the Democratic nominee for governor, to reject Golden’s endorsement of her campaign, and for the Senate Democratic caucus leader, Rob Wagner, to repudiate him. 

“As elected officials, we represent constituents of all backgrounds and Jeff Golden has proven unfit for that job,” Knopp said. “Southern Oregon deserves better.”

Golden described the attacks as “deeply cynical” and urged people to read the book in its entirety and make their own judgments. He wouldn’t write it the same way now, he said, but he stands by it as a piece of work he produced as a 20-year-old 50 years ago. 

“The book was written by a very passionate 20-year-old who saw the world in very black-and-white terms,” Golden said. “We age, but I’ll stand by it as a 20-year-old’s book.” 

The book, a slim 152-page tome, hasn’t been in print for years. It can be found in a handful of public libraries in other states and at several university libraries, including Western Oregon University and Portland State University. 

Two secondhand copies are available for sale on Amazon, where it has a single 3-star review from a person who met Golden in 2010 and called it a “somewhat interesting read.” The book has one 4-star rating on literary social media site Goodreads, where it’s incorrectly linked to a different Jeffrey Golden, an aspiring children’s book author from Pennsylvania. 

Use of slur, dialect

“Watermelon Summer,” a memoir by Oregon state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Golden uses the n-word several times in the book. The first three instances come early, after a passage describing the potential dangers of volunteering in the Civil Rights-era South.

The new Featherfield co-op in Georgia where Golden and his classmates spent their summer wasn’t far from an Alabama farm cooperatively owned by a group of Black Muslims, who had given up and opted to sell that spring after white neighbors poisoned and shot many of their cattle.

Golden’s older brother, who had helped register Black voters in the South, also warned him to be careful and told him to make sure he had life insurance. 

“We don’t know what to expect,” Golden wrote. “The Featherfield people are not as politicized as the Muslims, but that may make little or no difference to a white community that perceives the threat of a whole county of uppity n—s. And, of course, the only things lower than uppity n—s are n—lovers.”

He used the word twice more, once in a passage about how the 21-year-old son of his host family and the man’s friends wore thick black combs in their natural hair — “a minor act of defiance to demonstrate that the good-n— requirement of a skullcap haircut is a thing of the past.” The final time it appears, Golden was writing about how his group have been harassed by police who consider them “n—-lovin’ white(s).” 

Golden said he wrote the word to describe and ridicule the language of hostile, bigoted people he encountered.

“Books of that era often contained the spelled-out word to describe the language of racism,” he said. “I’ve long since learned how much pain that word has caused, and still does, and that using it is harmful in any context. While none of the dozens of readers who’ve contacted me over the years ever suggested that Watermelon Summer is remotely racist, I can understand how people reading the isolated sentences circulating this week could be deeply offended by reading this truly ugly word. I am sorry for that.”

A variation of the slur ending with “ah” appears several more times throughout the book, in direct quotes from white southerners talking about Black people. Every bit of dialogue from both Black southerners (“Y’ ain’t been t’ church one sincet ya got dat car”) and white ones (“Boy, you don’t nevah, nevah live with ‘em. We don’t do that round heah, you heah? You bettah get it straight, boy, ’n’ tell yoah frens”) is written in dialect. 

Golden said he wrote quotes in dialect to reflect what he heard. Since then, he said he came to understand that writing in dialect can perpetuate stereotypes about people from races or classes different from an author’s, and he wouldn’t write dialogue that way today. 

“I didn’t understand that 50 years ago.  I  don’t think many authors did,” he said. “So I was not interested in perpetuating stereotypes. I was just trying to say, here’s the evidence of my ears and eyes. This is what was going on.” 

Golden said this is the third campaign in which opponents used excerpts from his book to attack him. In 1989, when he was a Jackson County commissioner targeted for recall by logging interests over his environmental stances, a group ran ads near the end of the campaign with quotes from the book about his opposition to the Vietnam War. 

During his first race for Senate in 2018, a secretive dark money group called the Women’s Action Fund spent $22,000 attacking Golden as a misogynist, pulling isolated quotes from “Watermelon Summer” and pairing them on a website with video of him talking about cheating on his ex-wife.  

The quotes featured on that website come from a section where Golden complains about four or five of his fellow workers who made the “busy-work” of preparing lunches, picking up mail and making calls take all day, thus avoiding manual field labor. The so-called busy-workers were all female, and Golden goes on to describe how he and another male colleague debated why that might be the case.

“Matt thinks their refusal to work is a manifestation of their chauvinism, the result of a socialization process where women are encouraged to put down grueling, sweaty work,” he wrote. “I think that’s a load of s—. If anything, I would think that a woman’s socialization would make her more acquiescent and subordinate to orders given to her by men (in this case, Mr. Johnson – the situation is complicated here by an abstract commitment to obey poor black authorities in particular, as part of our ‘sacrifice’). So I am at a loss for a sex role theory to explain the dynamics of our group.” 

The anti-Golden website characterized that passage as Golden stating that he believed women should be subordinate to men. 

A statement sent by Golden to supporters concludes, “This tactic is deeply cynical. I don’t plan to fuel it with more comment.”

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix.

Oct. 8 update: Headline updated.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.


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