Friday, June 02, 2006

Social History

My father has been doing research into his roots, and awhile back he came home with this self-published family history someone had done. While I was looking through it over Christmas -- this was a few years back -- I came across a copy of some papers from the latter part of the 18th century: one of his female ancestors, a widow, who had sold her six children, ranging in age from a female infant, age seven months, up to a son age twelve, as indentured servants, for various periods of time, the infant girl's period being the longest -- she was being sold for 21 years.

I like to tell this story to my students and other folk who start going on about the welfare state, or the how things were better previous to 1960 -- how we had all these intact families, back when women didn't have autonomy or rights and men were forced to hang around and support them.

I keep getting this interesting reaction, from my students, and even from folk who ought to know better. Most of the men in my life are history majors, mind you. And yet: this is what I hear, from my students, and from them: "Huh. Well. You know, people weren't as attached to their children in those days. The concept of loving children as we know it didn't really exist."

My students say that, too, in less sophisticated ways. Where is this myth coming from? Not from the literature published at the time, I'll tell you that -- read Ann Bradstreet's poems to her dying children. Read the journals written at the time. Read Ben Johnson's epitaphs on his dying kids. Read the Roman elegies on their dying children, The Chinese elegies, the ones the Greeks wrote, and then tell me people previous to antibiotics just said, when one of their kids died, "Ah, fuck it, he was always crying anyway, I can always make another."

I suspect it's our way of protecting ourselves. We can't fathom the grief a mother must have felt, to have birthed twelve children and watched five of them die -- or to have birthed six children and then to have been forced, by economic circumstances, to sell them into forced labor. So we pretend that people back then were different. They didn't feel as we did.

I tell all this to my students, I rant it at them, actually, right before I tell them they should get down on their knees and thank whoever invented birth control and the social welfare system: because those are the things that keep them from having to make those choices.

And those are the things -- ha -- that the social conservatives are trying to take away from us.

I always point that out to them, too.

Don't worry about that one.

1 comment:

zelda1 said...

Reminds me of that senator or house speaker Newt someone who said he was raised in an orphanage and did fine. He was promoting doing away with social programs for single parents. I can only say that when my grandmother was a child, one of her siblings died and she told how her mother went crazy from the loss. That was around 1880ishes. If these people ever read the bible, what was the devotion of Mary at the foot of the cross for her son. How she, after finding him missing from the caravan, walked all the way back to find him in the temple. What was that all about if not love. then there are the stories of other women who wanted babies so badly and they greived for children. If children were not something women wanted, needed, then why all the prayers for them. DAvid grieved the loss of his child so much that he almost went mad. Where do these nuts get off reading into history what is truly not there? I cringe to think what women will have to endure if they are not given birth control. I also cringe for those children from poor homes who are not allowed things like free lunches. I was before free lunches and when my mom couldn't pay for our lunch and we didn't have food to take for lunch, we didn't eat. I remember standing outside the cafeteria with a belly growling hoping one of my friends would bring something out for me. Yep, those were the good ole days, pervious to social programs for the poor.