There is something to be said for the sheltered upbringing offered by a quiet, American suburb during the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was a life of safety and comfort, where anything and everything seemed possible if you just put your mind to it. Bad things always happened to someone else, somewhere else and there was no internet or 24 hour news cycle to remind me otherwise. I just tossed my parent’s weekly TIME magazine along with life’s other questionable areas unexamined and unexplained into the junk drawer of my childhood.
I want to raise my son the same way. Of course, the difficult aspect of this kind of upbringing is the shock you can experience when you begin to understand the more brutal reality of the world. It can unmoor your foundation, the very way you organized your understanding of things. Some might say this is simply the process of growing up. And that is true, to a certain degree. Lost idealism is a byproduct of aging of course.
This would be the moment when my almost 3 year old son would say, “Ecuse me MaMa. Why you talking about?”
“Well sweetie, when we were in Charleston I took you to visit the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, and while its trees and flowers are very beautiful to look at, I can’t stop thinking about how to explain to you what happened at these old plantation houses that makes them important.”
There is a story in my family about my great (or great great?) grandparents on my mother’s side I just can’t seem to shake out of my head lately. At some point in his life, my great grandfather made an untold amount of money in the slave trade. I’m not sure if he was in a sort of Jean Valjean position where he NEEDED that money to survive, or if he just saw it as a way to make some extra money.
When my great grandmother found out what he did (because let’s face it ladies, we always do) she was beside herself. They (or their parents?) had come to this country to make a better life. How could he then make money off the backs of people who almost certainly did not come here for a better life, but were instead forced to come here for a life of servitude and subordination?
Well, we all tell ourselves whatever we need to tell ourselves in order to sleep at night. It’s part of human nature. Every time I turn on my iPad I think for a second about how and where it was made, what the lives of people are like in places where forced labor is the only way of life. But I turn it on anyway, in fact, I just lied, I don’t think about it every time I turn on my iPad, that’s just how much I’ve convinced myself I do.
Maybe my great grandfather thought, ‘Well, if I don’t do it, someone else will. It might as well be me who makes that money and uses it for my family.’ And that is not an illogical argument, it is not an untruth. It is a skill we as humans have to ensure our survival. In order to survive in the wilderness, any type of wilderness, we might have to step on one of our own. We can if we have the innate ability to rationalize our behavior. It’s an uncomfortable reality of life, of nature. But I wonder, if this tool humans have, this innate ability, is supposed to be utilized for survival or once you have enough to survive is it supposed to be used to enable the individual and those closest to him the ability to thrive?
Some say yes, especially in this day and age, again…if you don’t, somebody else will. But my great grandmother didn’t seem think so. When she found out what her husband did she instead put her own security at risk. She made her husband make their home in Ohio part of the underground railroad. And he did. It was a crime punishable by a government who had not yet amended its Constitution. The barn of their house was one of many stops along the complex, word of mouth path to freedom for escaped slaves…it was also a path for dangerous bounty hunters and Federal Marshals.
I love this story. I want to teach my son to be brave like his great great (or great great great) grandmother, to move forward in life with unquestionable dignity and unwavering integrity. The paradox of parenting, however, is I also want him to survive…and thrive. I don’t want bounty hunters to ever come along his path. So while I grapple with this, I suppose I’ll find a place to start G’s own childhood junk drawer.
Our next stop was Florida.