America has an interesting way of preserving even the most infinitesimal parts of its history; through the work of playwrights who convert historical events into gripping plays performed on New York’s Broadway theatre community. 2017 gave us the true to the original screen adaptation of Fences by August Wilson, a film that was nominated for several Oscars and gave Viola Davis the platform to win her first, following a Tony win for her stage portrayal of the same role in 2010. Following her win, I became obsessed with musicals that portray America’s history from the perspective of its usual victims. This is how I found ‘Newsies’.
The stage play Newsies is an adaption of the 1992 Disney film of the same name, which chronicles the Newsboys Strike of 1899. It seems like a long time ago, but apparently the events of the Newsboys strike helped implement important legislation to protect children in America, legislation that is still in effect today. America in the 1900’s is very different from the America we know today. Back then child labour was legal in most states, and overlooked in states where it was illegal. America was newly out of the its slavery phase and after its civil war, no longer had free labour from slaves. Freed slaves and freeborn Americans were asking for a decent wage for their labour and flocking to the business with the best rates. So less lucrative businesses had to turn elsewhere for their cheap labour. So they turned to children.
This was before the advances in healthcare we have now, advances that has increased the lifespan of the average American by seven fold. Children were aplenty and infant mortality was at some of its highest numbers. Poor immigrant parents couldn’t afford to care for their many children so some took up taking care of themselves by themselves as soon as they could walk. Orphanages were little more than labour camps for children so most ran away. The streets of many of America’s industrial cities were littered with orphans and runaways forced for fend for themselves. The easiest job back then was to become a paper boy.
Newspapers were the internet of 1900’s. Everybody read them, everybody needed them. But that meant they had to be distributed across the cities to the right people, everyday. That meant hand deliveries and paper boys. There were paper boys as young as five years old. They were paid 50 cents for a day’s worth of newspapers, which when adjusted for inflation is about 13.5 dollars today, less than the minimum wage for an hour of work in most American cities. These newspaper boys were expected to feed and care for themselves from this amount and still make enough to afford to buy newspapers to resell the next day. It was a brutal life.
But of course, the men who owned the biggest newspapers at the time didn’t care. They wanted more profit and since they couldn’t fire workers from their factories because of the protection American trade unions offered workers, they decided to go for the unprotected, the children. They increased their rates from 50 cents to 60, an unconscionable offence and when the children realised no one would fight for them, 5 – 14 year olds, already marginalized by a government that didn’t recognize them were forced to take to the streets and strike in protest. The strike lasted several days, closing the Brooklyn bridge and at some point amassing 5000 children. The protest and the ones that followed help bring horrible child labour practices to the attention of the US Congress and initiated the current child labour reform laws that exist today.
The Newsboys riots of 1899 shows that while Americans are obsessed with policing the bodies of women, they do not care about the well-being of children after they are born. They would rather exploit them while they live in poverty and disease, ignoring their suffering in favour of making a quick buck. Many pro-life activists insist that abortions are abhorrent because they deny fetuses the potential of a lived life. But their concern only exists until after childbirth. Then those children become ‘black nigger monkeys’, stupid immigrant terrorists or white trailer trash. Their activism has influenced current US foreign policy including the abhorrent Global Gag rule that has caused deaths of Nigerian women and continues to cause deaths of Nigerian women.
Child labour isn’t dead in America either, the focus has simply shifted from the orphaned children and runaways of poor Irish immigrant families to the poor and orphaned immigrant children of South American families. So perhaps the next time a pro-lifer tries to police what you do with your body through their ‘missionary’ money, ask them what they have to do ensure that a child has access to a better life.
Featured Image Credit: http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/childlabor/