I was a very young girl when first understood privilege. For all the glamor of World War II movies and the clueless jingoism of Westerns that were part of a 1950s childhood, I couldn’t comprehend how boys and men could go to war. My father’s service in the Navy was somehow exempt in my mind, since he only bombed railroad tracks. Besides it was he who made me read Stephen Crane’s fearsome anti-war novel The Red Badge of Courage.
I could not fathom how men and boys could make themselves put one foot in front of the other, leave home, and submit to what looked to me like brutality. Even more, I could not figure out how they could compel themselves to act, when faced with orders to fight and kill. I knew I would be paralyzed if I were a boy or a man. In the late 1950s, I was very glad to be a girl. I still am, despite the cruelty continuously inflicted on women and girls through the ages and the minor slights I’ve sensed and experienced myself. Those injuries perceived and real offer insight, if not empathy, which I hesitate to claim at the risk of arrogance.
It was roughly the same time that I realized that my whiteness was an exemption from another kind of violence—the violence of the stares, the abuse, and the discrimination, as well as both the subtle and blatant disregard that every black child, woman, and man in the U.S. would be unable to escape. (In hindsight, I’m certain that the aforementioned Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage was an important factor in my nascent awareness of racial injustice.) It was a sign of my own racism and my white suburban context that it seemed both psychologically immediate and yet physically remote. I could only witness the infliction of pain on television and in films like “A Raisin in the Sun.” (I watched it years later with my son when he was about 10. It hurt him so much that he told us then that he’d never watch another movie set in the 1950s because it would be racist.)
Back then, I felt something akin to what Henry felt: sheer panic. I was still a child and as a child, powerless. I sensed a storm was coming and it would tear families up and torment minds and bodies for decades after each violent act. I was a fearful child, afraid of what white men (and women) with wounded egos could do. I still am. Only now I’m fearful of inaction against them. We need a renaissance in children’s education, in civics courses, and a renewed commitment to caring for others. Donate. Vote. Talk. Write.