A million years ago when I was a girl, my mother let me stay up late one night to watch an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs. It was, for me, a great education in, not only sexism but, also, classicism.
In this episode the wealthy daughter of a privileged English family engages in civil disobedience in support of women’s suffrage. (And, Goddess bless them, those women who risked their v. nice lives in support of that cause. I mean that. Sometimes, the privileged have to get out in front of an issue that’s “too expensive” for those less privileged to risk. I have a suspicion that global climate change is like this.) There’s a mass arrest and, once at court, the wealthy young woman is (natch) immediately let go. Her servant, however, who really isn’t interested in women’s suffrage, is sent, along with the other women, to jail. Comforting noises are made. Suffragettes have been refusing to eat and, then, after three days, allowed to leave jail before they harm themselves. So Miss Elizabeth goes home, thinking that Rose will “simply” go hungry for three days and then be released.
However, there’s a new development.
Prison officials show the women a device that will be used to force feed them (through the nose, if the women “misbehave” by throwing up when force fed through the throat). It reminds me of nothing so much as when the Catholic church showed Galileo the “instruments of torture.” (Although, since he was a man, that incident echoes down through history.) A prison matron describes the process, in rather grisly detail, to the imprisoned suffragettes. One woman whispers, in a line that has never left me, “Oh, that’s never England.” And, of course, the point is that, yes, that was England. And the women (and children, and men) in India, and Africa, and the South Seas knew it.
Over and over for the past few decades, I’ve found myself thinking, in response to attacks on our safety net, to torture, to pollution, to endless war, to officially-sanctioned corruption, “Oh, that’s never America.” And, of course, it is America.
I thought about it this weekend when G/Son and I — hanging out at the RenFaire and enjoying a day of perfect Autumn sunshine, abundant good food (we have our own special tradition of buying up a ton of candied spiced nuts to get us through the Winter), great music, educational exhibits about beekeeping and wool spinning, and buying ourselves wooden swords and shields, chain mail costumes, inlaid wooden boxes, and other accoutrements of the privileged G/Son of a privileged Nonna — had an interesting discussion.
The recent death of Rev. Shuttlesworth led to a discussion between Son and DiL about the civil rights movement and, G/Son, off playing in a corner but paying keen attention (acorns not falling far from trees), had asked his father why little girls were killed in a church. Son had to explain to G/Son (who goes to a Montessori school that is almost literally a rainbow of children and teachers, whose closest buddy in the world is of mixed “race,” and whose closest cousin is a lovely shade of cafe au lait) what “racism” was. While G/Son and I were chilling in the sunlight and waiting for Son to return from buying roast turkey legs, an African American family wandered past and one of the little boys and G/Son enjoyed comparing the flavors of honey (orange, clover, blueberry (G/Son’s favorite), meadowmarsh, and Killer Bee (second favorite, of course)) that they’d recently purchased. After they left, G/Son said to me, “Nonna, have you ever heard of people who hate other people for stupid reasons?”
And I just wanted to cry. I just wanted to die and melt into the straw for failure. I just wanted to say, “Oh, that’s never 21st Century America, where I have to talk to my G/Son about racism.” But it was. It was. Ain’t that America?
G/Son and I hung out together the day that Obama was inaugurated (and had special Obama cupcakes from the local bakery and went outside and beat on pots with wooden spoons and cheered “O-ba-ma!” after we watched the new president make his “special promise” to us that he would follow the laws), and, whatever else I’ve felt about Obama, I’ve always been incredibly grateful to him for the fact that my G/Son will grow up believing that it’s “just the way it is” for African Americans to hold even the most important positions in America. I was born just before Brown v. Board of Ed. My G/Son will mostly only remember an America where skin color doesn’t matter (but sex and gender still do) when it comes to electing presidents. (My Grandma was born before women could vote. Women from her (lower, lower) class weren’t suffragettes. They couldn’t afford it. Before my grandma died, she cast a lot of Democratic votes. I’ve always been proud of that progress. I’ve never, once, voted w/o thinking of her, but someday my many-times-great grandchildren will vote w/o a thought for how women won the vote. That will be progress.) What G/Son mostly knows about “Preznident Obama” is that he caught some pirates shortly after he went to the White House, that he has two little girls and a dog, and that Mrs. Preznident Obama wants children to eat healthy food and play outside. G/Son is v. impressed w/ anyone who catches pirates.
But as much as some privileged part of me wants to say, “Oh, that’s never America,” I can’t forget what “America” did to suffragettes just a few miles from my home, in Occaquan, Virginia. I can’t unread the poem that says, “America Never Was America, To Me.” I can’t pretend that America didn’t have its beginnings in slavery, genocide against the First Peoples, patriarchy.
And so, as much as I want to say, “Oh, that’s never America,” at least half of me has to say, “America! Wake up! Stop being who you’ve been and start to be who you were meant to be! There’s no honor in the course that you’re pursing.”
There’s one other thing I’ve always remembered.
When Rose is finally returned home, she has a cup of tea. And then she immediately scolds another servant for not having already scrubbed her mistress’s floor. And that’s how it goes. I, too, have found a clean cottage to be a bulwark against everything that I do not want to acknowledge. That doesn’t mean that clean cottages are evil. It means that we always need to be conscious. Doesn’t it? That’s always England. That’s always America. Be Here Now.
Picture found here.