It wasn’t until I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle that I truly understood my family. Until that time, the seemingly irrational fears and the history of violence looked like free floating maladaptation to life.
In its story I found many of the details I did know: the tavern my gangster grandfather owned, the delicatessen my mother grew up in, and the Back of the Yards neighborhood my parents grew up in, that my great grandparents on my father’s side had been in America earlier to work in the stockyards, but had left after only a few years. But the book did not remain silent beyond these hollow facts. It taught me that my great grandparents had probably returned to Europe impoverished and broken in mind and body. It told me that both sides of my family had been sold get-rich schemes by con artists and, against the odds, they didn’t lose every cent they had. And it described the Back of the Yards as it was when my parents grew up: a cesspool where children lie dead in green-scum puddles. After reading the book, everything made sense — especially the silence.
It is the silence about matters no one wants to remember that makes history much closer to our time than we think it is..
I find it useful, for perspective, to measure human history in touch. I have touched the hands of those who worked alongside Upton Sinclair during the two months he worked undercover in the stockyards. That time is near enough to impact me directly and powerfully. I have not, to my knowledge, touched the hand of someone born into slavery — but I am old enough that I could have done so, and so it is within the time frame of my personal experience. Small wonder just a few years of recent activism hasn’t slowed the pace of legal lynching, yet.
Silence hides the history of women too. My mother was born without the right to vote. I may have touched the hands of American women who had no right to own property, but who were property. But you don’t need to reach deeply into the past to find a time where US law restricted a married women’s right to property. The last so-called Head and Master law, obliging a woman’s obedience to her husband in matters of property, was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1980.
I could have touched the hand of a woman who touched the hand of a woman who touched the hand of a woman executed for witchcraft in Salem Massachusetts. That is not in my immediate past, but its shadow is near enough to have had an impact on my life as an unelucidatable fear. And it is so recent a part of our culture that it is small wonder America’s Taliban still concerns itself with witchcraft and eagerly exports the practice of witch burning to Africa.
Seeing history from the perspective of touch is why I don’t easily become discouraged. History is closer than it appears in the rear view mirror of our memory. History also doesn’t move smoothly in a steady advance toward progress.. History mostly moves slowly, sometimes taking a detour backwards, until the structures of power collapse under their own weight, and change comes quickly (to cite the famous quote by Lenin, “there are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen”) .
Odds are any given woman will see little to no sustained progress in her lifetime. On the one hand the closeness of the “bad old days” will be obscured by silence. On the other hand, probability favors her living in a time of little dramatic change. The lesson of history, as near as I can tell, is to forget about progress. Just live as free a life as you can, and do the right thing. Justice is not guaranteed, but when it does happen, it sneaks up on you.