Self-image changes in step with society

by Jerry Waxler

Henry Louis Gates, author of the memoir “Colored People,” grew up in Piedmont, a small town in the northeastern corner of West Virginia. The town was geographically in a hollow, and through the eyes of a child, looked picturesque, even cozy. In those simpler times in the 1950’s and 60’s, people got along with each other, except when race entered the picture.

Gates’ first inkling that race was going to make life complicated started in grade school. When he first became best friends with a white girl in his class, neither of them noticed they had different colored skin. Over time, this became more of an issue, and she began to pull away. Gradually, Gates noticed increasingly important issues, such as not being allowed to eat with whites, and that the paper mill only hired blacks to work on the loading dock.

As Gates tried to sort out his role as a black man in a white-dominated culture, millions of other people were doing the same thing, not just asking questions, but taking to the streets to demand answers. This was a strange and powerful time in our history. We were a nation that preached equality with the fervor of religion. But in practice, Jim Crow laws limited the rights of blacks all over the south.

I don’t know what stirred up such a bold call to action. Perhaps it was the fact that little more than a decade earlier, Americans had risen up to smash Hitler and had become accustomed to destroying great evils. Perhaps the pervasive eye of television made the world too small to hide the fact that so many governmental and social policies contradicted our shared dream of equality. But for whatever reason, society was tackling the same problem collectively that Gates was facing individually.

Gates described a compelling scene to demonstrate the intensity. Late in his teen years, when segregation had become illegal, Gates and his friends showed up at an all-white bar, the only black faces in the crowd. He survived the ensuing confrontation without physical injury, providing himself forever with the pride of knowing he risked his own safety to defend American idealism.

In the end of this crescendo of social conscience, Gates shares a gentler image of the fading of segregation. The paper mill held their annual picnic, one for whites and another for blacks. Even though the separate but equal doctrine was dead, that last picnic had a wistful quality, as people fully engaged in their own culture and enjoyed each other for exactly who they were. It was a lovely scene that provided me with a fascinating puzzle. As we blend into the larger culture, we lose some of the characteristics of our separate one.

Gates’ life story was compelling enough as an individual journey. He increased its value by artfully weaving his private life into the trends of the world. To paraphrase John Donne “no person is an island.” While it seems like a lucky break for Gates that he was learning about himself during the Civil Rights movement, I step back to see if I can find ways my life has interacted with the world. And I find many.

For example, even though I was born two years after World War II, I was profoundly affected by the ripples of despair and hope that emanated through my generation. And then, during the Vietnam War, I was deeply affected by the protests, the fear, and the pain of divisiveness. Looking further across the decades, I see sweeping changes in attitudes towards gender, race, religion and spirituality, age, career, marriage, and sex.

And everything seems to be speeding up. Our lives are impacted each year by some new radical change. Just in the last twenty years, cell phones have connected people wherever they are. Politics in faraway places we never heard of implode into our lives in terrorism. The price of homes went up, seemingly bringing with it unlimited wealth, and then crashed creating a financial crisis throughout the world. The oil that heats our homes and fuels our cars could be running low, becoming more expensive, and at the same time, damaging the atmosphere. My car is contributing to the melting of the ice caps. We’re all connected, and it’s all changing.

Social trends are not always obvious when we’re in them. Like a rowboat rising and falling on the surface of a large wave, we might not even notice we are being moved. To me, this is one of the most wonderful benefits of memoir writing. By encompassing a larger view, we see not only what happened inside our own lives, but we also fit in to a broader context, connecting our individual stream with the ocean of humanity.

Writing Prompt – social change that changed the way you saw yourself
Focus on some powerful transition or theme or period in your life. Then look for parallel changes in the culture. What was going on in the people, the media, or other larger scope that helped or hindered your personal development? If you can’t find an obvious parallel, the way Gates does in “Colored People,” look for subtler ones.

Describe examples of these cultural influences, from news stories, or from stories you know about other people. See if you can weave your individual life with the trends that are taking place in the people around you.

Notes
Check out these other essays inspired by memoirs about the mixing of cultures and search for identity:
Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama

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3 thoughts on “Self-image changes in step with society

  1. I was born in the late 1940’s, but the impact of the depression and WWII was ever-present. I love studying the 60’s, which I think of as my decade, because I remember the social upheaval and can see how it changed my world. This post was a good reminder of how we are products of our past.

  2. Thanks Steve and Travelinoma,

    It’s fun to hear about your fascination with the sixties. Sometimes I feel bewildered at how to portray them, because they were so different from “ordinary life.” But when I go into my memory, and see the mark they made, those years keep coming back as part of the overall story. Thanks for the links, Steve. What a rich resource!

    Jerry

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