On Tuesday, I saw Hidden Figures, about three African-American women who fought bigotry and misogyny to become important figures at NASA. It’s a great movie, and a story that needs to be told.
I am acutely aware of the ways in which my forebears benefited from the oppression of blacks. I know that, although they might not have been part of the screaming mob, they probably would have been supportive of efforts to make sure that African-Americans “knew their place.” People such as my great-aunt on my father’s side, or my grandmother on my mother’s, who would complain about “the coloreds” would not have been fazed at all by the separate water fountains — they would have seen them as simply the order of things.
Understanding this makes me uncomfortable in the extreme. I have learned to sit with that discomfort, to not look away, to recognize my responsibility as someone who even now has benefitted from Jim Crow, without taking on the guilt my family once should have felt.
Knowing that both of my parents rejected this pernicious part of their heritage helps, but does not completely erase how I feel. (The broadening of their horizons began not with African-Americans, but with Jews — my father served, and was friends with, several Jewish Marines while in the Pacific during World War II. When he returned, and the pastor in the Southern Baptist Church he attended began a sermon fulminating against the horrible Jews, he walked out, never to return. He became a Roman Catholic (at the risk of some professional opportunities; Mississippi in the 50s and 60s was not a particularly good place for Catholics), as did my mother. They taught me that all people were equal, both under law and in the sight of God.)
I am thankful the story of these women has been told. Every time we learn of the brave women and men who fought against a horridly unjust system, we can face the past, and maybe work to make amends.