Friday, March 21, 2008

Clinging to history

Ok, that last post clearly resonated with a lot* of people. Maybe you'll like this one better. But probably not.

This is an old article; an interview with one of the white students who protested school desegregation in Little Rock. Unlike Hazel Bryan Massery, who apologized publicly for her actions, James Reed Eison refuses; in his words, “I am angry at the judgments... We were the products of our time and should not apologize.”

Now, I’ll grant him a couple of points:
1) white/black relationships in the segregated south were not always abusive or hateful at the individual level. I’m sure many white folks treated many black folks with kindness and consideration, and no doubt some understood what they had inherited by simple unmerited birthright, and that their circumstances did not make them better people than their black friends.
2) We’re human; in the stories we tell ourselves, we like drama, we like familiar archetypes, we like a struggle with a good protagonist and an evil villian. We want to feel excitement, passion, and righteous anger; we’re not so moved by nuance, by conflicted or complex characters who are “partly good and partly bad.” So we tell the story of Little Rock with 9 black heroes and 1,500 evil white villains, and give little consideration to the fact that they were mostly young people who were products of their place and time, inculcated with certain attitudes, still in the process of finding who they are in the world and what to believe. There but for the grace of God, etc.


Regarding issue #1 (there were nice white folks who didn’t treat black people badly): What Eison doesn’t understand is that all those acts of charity or kindness or camaraderie took place within the context of a spectacularly unfair and repressive two-tier society. The extra money Eison’s mother gave to her maid was hers to give because the society was structured to usher her into that place of privilege and (relative) wealth, and to keep her maid – and her daughters and grand-daughters – working as maids. No matter how much his dad liked hanging out with his colored friends, at the end he went home to comfort, privilege, and opportunity that they would never be allowed to experience. White privilege was built on the backs of slaves; the entire southern social structure – the very thing that placed Col. Eison in the position to be0 magnanimous and oh-so-tolerant – was the end-product of an egregious and unequivocal wrong: the enslavement of a people, and the resulting disenfranchisement of their descendants. Now, that’s not to say that Eison, who never owned a slave, was personally responsible for righting the wrongs of his great-grandparents. But it seems to me that he might be moved to view his actions with an eye to context, with consideration of the History that he holds in such reverence.

As well: Evil *is* evil. A mob screaming, spitting, brutalizing young people because just because the young people want to get an education is wrong, period. It cries out for an apology, and more. To fail to see that is a most willful blindness.

And finally: for a historian, Eison is incredibly ignorant. When prompted about wealthy black Americans of the time he says, “…There were some with a little bit of education and could read, and I’m sure they were fine people.” An interesting way to describe the black doctors, lawyers, architects, scientists, etc who had succeeded in spite of a drastically tilted playing field.

But all that said…
That’s not even what I was going to talk about. What was interesting to me, was the insecurity I saw in Eison’s words and position. I’m (obviously) not trained in psychology, but I see two things that scream insecurity to me:

1) devotion to the familiar past.
Eison appears to have a tremendous investment in, and reverence for, History. He works in a museum. He collects artifacts. He’s very involved in his family history. And he mentions straight out his discomfort with the changes in society at that time.
All of that suggests to me that change is scary to Eison, and even when it’s forced upon him he clings desperately to the past in a way to preserve and cement the familiar into his life and consciousness.

2) inability to be wrong.
In addition, apologizing would make Eison wrong. Inability to be wrong is a common trait of insecure people – they think admitting failure or error diminishes them in some way. He says “…then apologize – that’s weak.”

In short, the man seems insecure to me.
And this is where one writes a tight and pithy paragraph neatly summarizing one’s position and leaving the reader with some type of conclusion. Go.



At Tue Mar 25, 10:12:00 PM PDT, Blogger anya said...

Wow. It's amazing that he said that. "We were products of our time." That's it. Talk about deluded...


Post a Comment

<< Home