I traveled back in time last week.
While visiting my parents in Mississippi, I turned on the television and settled in with a plate of fresh figs and a tomato sandwich. I wanted something light and distracting, something to kill half an hour before I turned to my computer or my book. My folks are old school: no cable, no satellite, no Netflix or Amazon or Apple TV. They have about a dozen over-the-air channels that seem to be broadcasting directly from the 1970s and 80s. Among my viewing options were Knight Rider, The Munsters, Hart to Hart, and Mayberry RFD. Seriously. Not just old television programs, but terrible old television programs.
Finally I found PBS and its coverage of the Republican National Convention. Unfortunately it did nothing to quell the sense that I’d somehow ended up in a time warp. Was that Chachi at the podium? Good grief.
It got me thinking about nostalgia, and how often it’s used to instill fear about the future. If the past was so great, why should we ever want to move forward? Why would we want things to change?
I have good memories of growing up in Mississippi. I had a large circle of friends at school and at church. Summers, I swam most days at the community pool. I worked the concession stand at that pool to earn a bit of spending money.
Sounds great, right?
Anything is great if you only tell the good parts. Here’s what I Ieft out:
- That large circle of friends was peppered with people telling racist jokes and making snide comments about women. One future minister from the Baptist church told a joke so racist that it stunned me. He accused me of being humorless. Apparently it was my fault he wasn’t funny. Isn’t it always?
Another boy, now a rabid supporter of the current Republican nominee, told me I was stupid for thinking they’d let Geraldine Ferraro anywhere near the White House. PMS has no place in the Oval Office, he said. Charming.
- That community pool? All white. No blacks allowed. It wasn’t an explicit rule, but families had to fill out a membership application and pay dues to swim there. No black family was ever approved. I doubt they ever applied. Once, when working the concession stand at the pool, a couple of my friends stopped by to make plans for the evening. The phone rang and I answered it. The same boy who’d told the racist joke had walked across the street to a pay phone so he could tell me not to let one of my friends past the pool gates. She was black. I am ashamed to this day that I didn’t walk out and quit that job on the spot. I was not so brave at fifteen.
Those are just a few examples of what the good old days were like, so I’m suspicious when anyone wants to return to “a simpler time.” There is no such thing.
The novel I’m currently working on is partly set in mid-1970s and early 80s Mississippi, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the events of my childhood. I’ve been parsing the good and the bad, and trying to understand how attitudes shift and change and evolve. I’ve been exploring the idea that good people can rise out of bad circumstances, and that bad people often show up just when things are getting better. When writing about my home state, I work to avoid sentimentality and blanket generalizations about the place and the people. There is good in Mississippi–now and in the past. Some of my favorite people were born there. Many of my favorite people still live there. But ugliness persists, and it is not confined to the South.
There are too many people these days who believe we need to return to a better time, a simpler time, a safer time. I find no evidence those times ever existed. A year or so ago, that boy who told the racist joke sent me an apology. He remembered telling the joke. He remembered my reaction. Thirty years gone by and he was still ashamed. Is there any doubt he is better today than he was back then?
I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to live in the world of my childhood. I don’t want to live in a world where racism is a casual joke, where calling someone a homosexual is an insult, where boys feel confident telling a teenage girl she’ll never get near the White House because she bleeds every month and it makes her crazy, a world where I am too chicken to do the right thing. It was not a better world; it sure as hell wasn’t great.
We still have so much work to do. Racism persists. Sexism persists. Homophobia persists. Violence persists. But we won’t fix our problems with misty-eyed reminiscing. Revisiting the past is fine on television, in movies, in literature, but we should never romanticize it.
Tonight, I’m going to turn on my television set and watch the future. To the boy who said a woman would never get close to the White House, you were wrong. You were wrong in the past and you are wrong today. The future has been a long time coming, but I can see it from here. It looks great.