It is a truth universally acknowledged among T’s family and friends that D. is “the smart one,” in this relationship, and, in the face of a vast body of evidence, T generally concurs… however, as she has just sent him off to work after a failed attempt to start the car without the key, she would like to herewith state the time-worn truth that it’s a good thing that “cute”… can take one a long way in this world. ::cough::
The big buzz in adult literary circles at present, from Oprah on down, is Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. There’s a brilliant New Yorker essay by Kathryn Schulz this month which talks about the actual historical facts of that portion of abolitionist history, and the well-stitched (quilted, even) lies and mythologies which have generally overtaken its history. Whitehead’s novel is kind of a magical realism; the railroad – complete with cars and track – is real, in his point of view, and the novel – which we’ve not read – apparently takes into account who that would work for, and what it would cost them emotionally and physically as well as probably monetarily. Schultz’s essay has some great points about the history, and how Americans tend to view it – and mythologize it – in the general scope of today’s history and politics. Inasmuch as it caused frothing at the mouth for some to consider that slaves even built the White House, it’s obviously easier to recenter the narrative about slavery to the people who helped and healed, rather than who benefited, and to canonize them. We also like to imagine that “had we been there,” we’d have been working shoulder to shoulder with the abolitionists, ever on the side of right.
It’s such a nice fantasy.
The final statement in Schulz’s essay really stuck home:
“One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within. The great virtue of a figurative railroad is that, when someone needs it—and someone always needs it—we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose. ♦
Lived reality is always a muddle.
ALWAYS. A. MUDDLE. Oh, for the moral high ground which many people seem to find, and assume that their lives would have been peerless and blameless back in the day. They would have turned away from anything smacking of sexism or racism. THEY would have never kept slaves. THEY would have taken the kids out of the city for a camping trip to Jericho instead of being in Jerusalem the weekend they decided to crucify Christ. Always with the superiority complex, we humans! If it were all that easy, we’d all be swanning around in perfection, perhaps on golden streets. It’s NEVER that easy – life is also coercive, and insidious, and intimidating, full stop. This reminds me to, for the love of God, to give a bit of grace to others in terms of their follies and mistakes in the here-and-now.
We recommend Schulz’s entire essay, “The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad” where she considers Whitehead’s novel and Ben Winter’s alternate history novel, Underground Airlines within the context of history, historians, and how it we consider this piece of our collective past today.