January 20, 2018
There were lots of pink hats at the women’s rally I attended on Saturday. The rally was the second annual, the first having been called in national protest to Trump’s inauguration. The speeches and rally signs were part get-out-the-vote, part women’s rights (reproductive and equality), #MeToo, #TimesUp, anti-racist and inclusive. Anti-Trump.
Into the way back machine
As I stood amongst the mostly elderly female crowd in pink hats, an ugly and ancient memory stirred. When I was six and seven, we lived in the Bayview Canarsie housing projects in Brooklyn, New York, where legions of kids played King of the Hill and Ring-a-levio together.
Nearly all of my friends in our building were Jewish. One day I asked my mother if we were Jewish, too. This was right about the time that her mother took me to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to be baptized in secret—a secret I kept. Still, since my bewildered gentile parents practiced no religion, I evidently made no connection. Possibly a stab in the right direction, for my nascent ecumenism persisted, but there were unfortunate limits to my cluelessness.
There also was a Japanese family in the building and the little girl and I were friends. I can’t remember her name, although I still have photos of us together. Both she and her family were very nice to me. Her father took us fishing, probably to the pier on Jamaica Bay.
Out of the Mouths of Babes
As little girls are wont to do, as this little girl was wont to start, we had a spat. I wanted to wound her and I called her a Jap. Before the word left my mouth I knew it would be the end of us, and it was. She never spoke to me again.
That word was used in the numerous World War II movies we watched on The Million Dollar Movie. It was part of the language and attitude of my World War II era family. It was a comfortable part of my life, but I knew very well what it meant to say it to her.
As she walked or ran away from me, possibly crying, I felt nothing but a hollow bravado. Like the protagonist in the brilliant Jean Stafford story, “Bad Characters,” speaking about her friendships: “When they ended and I was sent packing in unforgetting indignation, it was always my fault;” I felt sorry for myself! I did not feel remorse or regret for what I’d said—that came later and stayed forever.
Back to Our Brave New World
With that memory I was reminded that the things Trump says about groups of people, the names he calls them, were there in me, once upon a time. It would be a far, far better thing for all of us if he too had stopped believing and using them long before now. His words have given permission to some Americans to express all of the poison stored in their heads, all of that poison from my childhood.
Not to me. Not to the women in the pink hats. As one of their signs exclaimed, “I can’t believe we have to protest this shit AGAIN!”
Note: A post about the wonderful and largely forgotten writer Jean Stafford appeared here in July, 2017 http://www.constancegemmett.com/lucky-man-voice-undertaker-e-b-white-jean-stafford/
“Bad Characters” may be found within the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, 2005, FSG (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Classics, with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. Ask your local librarian to order it.