It’s Complicated

Without going into the whole tabula rasa thing, I’m simply going to share something I heard on a podcast a few weeks ago. It wasn’t anything I didn’t already know because I did. But what arrested my attention and kept me listening were these words by the presenter: You know what you know because you’ve been told that by someone.

That someone might have been a parent or a teacher or a friend. Still, until you heard those words, you didn’t know that fact, i.e., the earth is round. As you matured and began to read, words from a book told you things you didn’t know before. Before long, you realized you were part of a culture, and although you knew there were different cultures and peoples and traditions and languages in the world, yours was the most awesome. Maybe you were a bit ethnocentric. I was. Probably still am.

As a child, I learned to speak English. In my baby book, my mother wrote, “Jane now says so many new words each day that I can’t write them all down.” I’m confident that the words were dog (not chien), brother (not frere), and house (not casa). My parents and extended family spoke only English, not French or Spanish, so that’s what I learned. A simple example, and yet you get the point. Language is a huge and unifying part of one’s culture. 

We went to a Baptist church where I was taught that “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.” My young friends and I sang those words with fervor, and yet none of us really knew any other children except the ones who were just like us. Until I went to college, I didn’t have classes with any Black or Asian Americans.

In grades 1-12, my friends and siblings learned quite a lot about the traditions and history of our country. George Washington was our first president and a brilliant military leader; Thomas Jefferson was a great statesman, the third president, and primary author of the constitution; Native Americans (called Indians back in the day) were savages who lay in wait to attack Europeans as they tried to “make it” in this land.

I’m not saying the above statements are bogus. I’m saying the truth is somewhere in the middle. 

Washington was indeed America’s first president, Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces, and slave owner of about 300 slaves (give or take). Jefferson once called slavery an Assemblage of Horrors, yet he owned around 175 servants. And then there’s Sally Hemings. Native Americans lived here long before the Europeans arrived, but now ….

I bought it all—hook, line, and sinker and was an adult before I realized how complicated things were. My awakening was slow. First, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His “I Have a Dream” speech can still move me to tears. Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The world was changing, and while I saw that as a good thing, it was a little discomforting. I read Ramona and learned more about the treatment of Mexicans and Natives, visited Juneau and stumbled upon “The Empty Chair” Memorial, toured Mount Rushmore and began to understand why the Native Americans were a bit bothered by the faces of white men carved into what they (the Natives) viewed as a sacred mountain. During the last several years, we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many Plains states, and some of things I saw and heard and read will disturb me for the rest of my life. 

One night I watched an interview with Susan Sarandon and Jimmy Fallon in which she said, quite calmly and assuredly, that America was founded on the “genocide of Native Americans and on the backs of slaves.” I gulped. In that moment, I knew she was right and that she had known this truth for a long, long time.

I just started reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s funny and clever and smart (like he is). At the end of the introduction to apartheid, he says: “….but the general thrust of it should be easy enough for any American to understand. In America you had he forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of these things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

I’m not dissing my teachers, preachers, parents, friends, books, or television for the things I blithely accepted as fact. I’m saying that being open to learning the “also truths” has been eye opening. It’s complicated.

Golden Age?

One recent morning, I turned the corner to go back in the neighborhood when I heard a great line on a podcast. In this case, great means true. “Conservatives long for a Golden Age that never was and liberals hope for a perfect tomorrow that will never be.” That’s it, I thought. That’s the gospel truth!

There was never a Golden Age in America, at least not for everyone. Just ask the Natives like Chief Powhatan. And there will never be a perfect tomorrow–or even a fair and equitable one.

When planning our 50th class reunion, some classmates and I talked about how fortunate we were to have grown up in a sleepy little town in South Carolina’s midlands. Before I go any further, don’t be offended, fellow Camdenites. To us, it might be the best little corner of the world ever, but I’m often amazed and disappointed when I tell people where I’m from and they give me the stare that asks, “Where is that?”

“About thirty miles east of Columbia,” I tell them, and if they still look befuddled, I add that Columbia is the state capital. It’s nice here, always pretty and usually peaceful. There are robberies and drug busts and hungry children, heartbreakers in all locales, but that’s a story for another day.

Back to the reunion planning day. After bandying back and forth about our good fortune at having been raised in Camden during the best of times, those years of relative prosperity after WWII and before Vietnam, someone said, “For us, it was a good time, yes. But it wasn’t for everyone.”

I recall being glad that someone besides me had introduced the elephant in the room and led him to the center ring. Someone else’s bravery in truth telling gave me a pass that day. I could listen and contribute to the conversation without being blamed for casting a pall over our lively and lovely lunch by bring up something unpleasant.

Every girl (we still think of ourselves as girls, not old ladies) at the table had grown up in a similar environment. Some were raised in wealthier families, and some were Baptist while others were Methodist. You get the picture. We had been homogenous as kids, not a Buddhist or African American among us. In fact, we were raised in an era when JFK was given some flak for being Catholic. Would he answer to the Pope or to the people? It’s actually laughable to consider how scared some Americans were of JFK’s religion.

About our so-called Golden Age, there was that Bay of Pigs thing, the Red Scare, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Am I going to mention the Civil Rights Act of 1964? You can bet on it. Although change had been brewing for years, this legislation changed America’s landscape forever. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter from the Birmingham jail. His “I Have a Dream” speech is a standard selection in college literature texts. There were other leaders, but this is a blog, not a history lesson.

I’ve rambled. My point is that to my classmates and me, we thought we lived in a golden age. We were naïve. We lived in a bubble, blind to social injustice and the several horrors and misfortunes that others suffered. In our white-bread world, we actually believed Native Americans were the bad guys. Or I did. I believed the history books. And we knew little about African Americans although they likely comprised 25-30 percent of the community’s population.

Then one day at the doctor’s office, I noticed another door at the end of the hall, one that had escaped my notice before that morning. While waiting for Dr. Shaw to come in and diagnose my tonsillitis, a frequent happening, I asked my mother about the door. When she didn’t answer me right away, I looked at her face and could tell she was bothered by my question.

She leaned in and whispered, “That’s the colored waiting room.” My mother, by the way, was simply using the parlance of the day and was the least bigoted person I’ve ever known.

Shocked at the revelation, I didn’t answer. I see that moment as an awakening, for it was absolutely the first time in my young life that I recognized inequality. I’m not dissing the doctor.  Like my mother, he was a product of the times. I’m simply expressing my feelings about America’s mistreatment and marginalization of people perceived as “different.”

While conservatives long for a golden age that never was and liberals hope for a perfect future that will never be, could we just love one another?