Monday, 8 April 2013

A History of...What You Make of It! (pt. I)

I was reading a discussion - yes, a discussion, not a comment war, for once - on the state of black Americans. Not "people of color," just the black ones.

It's actually a great discussion. Ordinarily if a white person (or, really, anybody) was to say something like "it's not the buildings, the school lunches, white people, or poverty that's the problem - it's the parents not instilling the correct values in their kids," they would be instantly deemed a hateful racist bigot.

But...they'd be correct. And also not a hateful racist bigot, but that goes without saying.
The miserable state of public education in the United States, especially parts of the South and Southwest, has been well-known and well-documented for decades. Decades. I mean, it's not like it magically got better as soon as the Civil Rights Movement finally saw success, but then inexplicably became shitty again in the recent past.

I live in Newtown Township, Pennsylvania, which is comprised entirely of the town of Newtown Square. Newtown Square has grown considerably, and in fact is continuing to grow, but our population is still roughly 12,300. Newtown Square itself is, according to the 2000 census, 96% white. It's logical to assume that this hasn't changed very much. Well, perhaps not logical, but availability heuristics usually make sense around here.

All the new constructions are aimed at rich families, mostly because Episcopal Academy moved to Newtown Square several years ago and, I'll admit, it's a good school. The campus is kinda ugly and industrial-looking, but that's probably just because it lacks the character of a place that wasn't built, you know, within the last five years. At least all their students with cars/licenses can park on campus!*

In any case, Newtown Square and its immediately surrounding areas, except for places like Chester, Marcus Hook, and parts of Upper Providence and Marple Townships, unmistakably exhibit obvious reminders of this area's history as a country (and later, "suburban") retreat for rich Philadelphians, all of whom were white, and a fair amount of whom were actually European. By that, I mean that they are inhabited by rich, or at least "upper-middle-class" white people.

So, in the end, it makes sense that rich black people wouldn't necessarily want to live in a development full of rich white people. Who would?** They're uppity and rude and generally very conservative and, more often than not, religious. In a bad way.*** I'm glad I live in a neighborhood that is mostly retirees and young families. In my neighborhood, at least, people are more down-to-earth, especially the older people.

I mean come on, who can live to 60+ and still think it's sensible to have their heads in the clouds? Some of my neighbors definitely remember the Civil Rights Movement itself, and lots of them were affected in some way or another by the Vietnam War. And there was other stuff that happened. Lots of stuff. Is it in all of our history textbooks? I doubt it.

I remember one time, when I was much younger, talking to a woman who lived a few houses down. I don't recall her name, for whatever reason - assuming I even knew it at the time - but I do remember she just looked like the kind of "little old lady" you'd see at church, or the grocery store, or post know. She wasn't "frail", but definitely old. And she was white. And she told me about how she got kicked out of her home once for marching with black people demanding civil rights - apparently her father was not fond of the idea of her attending college with black people!

Think about it - somebody alive in the 2000s who remembers this. Crazy how far we have come. Crazy, too, how far we have yet to go.


I live with my family in Newtown Square. We are not rich white people. We aren't WASPs. In fact, there's more evidence asserting my father's grandparents were Jews, not Russian Orthodox (what kind of people were trying to get out of Russia in the early 20th century, remember?) like I've been told. And I'm not a Protestant. And there's much more "Saxon" in us than "Anglo." And that also doesn't matter a fucking bit, because we're American, and that's so much simpler and easier to say.

My parents are not old. When I was born, my mother was 28 and my father was 33. That's the age when most couples have children, assuming one or both went to some institute of higher education and then either worked or went to graduate school and then got married, and didn't have kids right away until they knew they could support a family. You know, how responsible (or, admittedly, sometimes overly-cautious) people approach the idea of having kids.

So now, both of my parents are still well under 60. My mother isn't even 50. Oh, and her mother is still alive, as is her was a different time, I suppose!

My father is not old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement actually happening. He was five when the Act was passed in 1964. My mother was an infant! Oh, but their parents...their parents knew. Their parents had been brought up in a naturally racist culture, even my paternal grandmother (who was born in what is now the Czech Republic). My mother can speak at length about her late father's extensive vocabulary****, including a vast arsenal of racial slurs. Go figure.

Contrast with my father's family - namely his mother and older sister. His mother was a social worker with an impressive resumé. She attended Smith College (you know, the highly-selective and very highly-regarded all-women's college? one of the only such schools in the country? that one) and was apparently so good at what she did that her dissertation was published in 1945.

1945. Woman. Immigrant woman. At a very good college. Hell, at a college! Published author. Highly regarded social worker. My late grandmother.

How many women do you think went to college in 1945? Your guess is as good as mine. But I'll bet a fair amount of my non-existent money that there were not nearly enough to say with any degree of sincerity that women were held to standards as high as men were.

She went to college, graduated, and then got married and raised three children. And worked. She touched the lives of hundreds of people, if not more. She lived to help others. She quietly set an example that is still evident today.

My paternal grandmother died of natural causes in October 2006, in a way a relief to her children and grandchildren. She had been in declining health for years, since I was quite young, and had suffered from a form of dementia for the year or so leading up to her death. I can understand why my father has changed so much since his mother died, especially after losing his father (whose story would occupy another five pages at least) in 1984.

It's all very complicated, isn't it? I shall have to continue this story another day...


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