Drew Gilpin Faust on Growing-Up in Virginia

Faust

In a piece in the latest issue of The Atlantic, Faust, the recently retired president of Harvard and an American historian, reflects on what it was like to growing-up in the racist South.  Her piece is a wonderful example of how to blend personal memoir and American history.

Here is a taste:

I was 9 years old when the news reports about “massive resistance” and battles over segregation made me suddenly realize that it was not a matter of accident that my school was all-white. I wrote an outraged letter to President Eisenhower—outraged because this wasn’t just, but also outraged that I only now understood, that I had been somehow implicated in this without my awareness. I have wondered whether I was motivated in part by my growing recognition of my own disadvantage as a girl whose mother insisted I learn to accept that I lived in a “man’s world.” I resented that my three brothers were not expected to wear itchy organdy dresses and white gloves, or learn to curtsy, or sit decorously, or accept innumerable other constraints on their freedom. I was becoming acutely attuned to what was and wasn’t fair. And because my parents seemed to take for granted that this was both a white world and a man’s world, I took it upon myself to appeal—without telling them—to a higher power: “Please Mr. Eisenhower please try and have schools and other things accept colored people,” I wrote. “Colored people aren’t given a chance … So what if their skin is black. They still have feelings but most of all are God’s people.” And I acknowledged the accident of my own privilege: “If I painted my face black I wouldn’t be let in any public schools etc.” I seem to have figured out “etc.” before I recognized the realities of the racial arrangements that surrounded me. And, curiously, I framed what I had recognized as the contingency of race and the arbitrariness of my own entitlement by invoking blackface.

Read the entire piece here.