Thursday, July 29, 2010

If I could turn back time...

So you know that question, "If you could go back to any time period in history, which one would you choose and why?"

I've never liked that question.

Because if I'd be me (which I assume I would be,) I think my life would quite likely be way worse than it is now.

I guess this is a testament to how far we've come. But it's also pretty sad to think that for 99% of the time, my life might have been rather sucky.

Well, maybe that's an overstatement. I'm sure plenty of black people had plenty happy lives before the civil rights movement came along. But I do wonder how much slavery/segregation/jim crow affected people on a day to day basis. Not just black people, white people too. How often did you hear "the n word?" Daily, or was it not something said in polite company? When you went in the back entrance to get your food or whatever, were the white workers nice, mean or indifferent towards you?

I read this book called American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, and one of the things that I learned was that if a black person and a white person were stopped at a four way stop, the white person automatically had the right of way, even if that wasn't the order that they stopped in. I can't help but think that little things like that seeping into people's psyches 50 years ago still have an effect on race relations today.

After I read that book, I had my husband read it--and it f*cked his sh*t up. Y'all know I don't really like to curse on my blog, but I don't know of an appropriate substitute phrase that gets my point across. Anyway, it's a really great book to learn more about the history of our country after the Civil War, that goes beyond the segregated lunch counters we learned about in school. It was written by Jerrold M. Packard, and you can order it on Amazon (through my handy sidebar that says "read more books") or you can see if they have it at your local library.

But back to the original question. I think it might be interesting to go back to the 1950's, to see if it was as conformist as it is always portrayed to be in the movies. Plus, I like the women's fashions of that time. I'd also be interested in seeing what the 60's were like. How much did the hippie/anti-war movement permeate popular culture? Not too much before that really appeals to me. Maybe the Renaissance, because I heard there was lots of good art :P

What about you? What time period sounds appealing? How do your multiple identities (race, gender, etc.) influence your choices?


  1. I just finished reading "The Help," and have been thinking about this a LOT lately. I've also become keenly aware that there seem to be some parallels between how the general population of whites in Mississippi treated their "Help" and how many people (mostly white) currently treat the immigrant (mostly Hispanic) population here in Denver. Have you read, "The Help"? Would love to read your thoughts...

  2. P.S. Hope you're feeling well and getting ready for that baby to arrive...I know I'm getting ready for mine!

  3. I couldn't agree with you more about how irritating that question is. It's like it's made for white people.

  4. myblackfriendshusband11:15 PM

    The reason I found the book so powerful was because it allowed me to draw the line from slavery to modern day. The premise that Jim Crow was essentially an extension of slavery is pretty powerful and convincing. Given that Jim Crow ended in our parents lifetimes, it is then so much easier to understand our nation as a country JUST NOW recovering from a polarized culture, rather than, as I think most white people see it, a country that had a polarized culture hundred of years ago.

  5. there was a period when i was younger that i used to want to go back to the prairie days so that i didn't have to make choices and they would all be made for me - but that sort of highlights what's wrong with the question.

    i guess since i usually assume this question means for a day i don't weigh in any issues - race or as above, sex. for the purpose of the question i assume i will have an unlimited budget, travel resources and go only to those places i want - ie if i'm visiting the 1920s i won't be married to an alcoholic wife abuser i can't leave - i'll be sitting at dorothy parker's roundtable.

    but now to look at the question in this light - i also don't assume i will be constrained by my heritage. if i go any further back than sixty years or so both sides of my lineage were hated. which is not to compare apples to apples - i actually think this highlights your point. it is no bs that the irish and italians were hated in this country. there was a period right around the turn of the century/beginning of the century were it was harder for an irish man to get a job than a black man - both were called the n word but the black guy wasn't a filthy catholic to boot. and the second immigration law was designed specifically to keep out italians. but - i know those things as interesting tidbits of history. i know one of my grandfathers actually experienced it. but it isn't something that i feel in my life. the very fact that it doesn't pop into my head when i consider the time travel question shows that it has amended itself.

    the truth is that almost everything is better than it was for everyone; no matter what people think. of course, in matters of race it is most glaringly obvious followed by the rights of women, the quality of life of the poor (despite the divide of the rich and poor having become further apart the conditions of being poor are far better). but cut off the head of any nostalgia and in its place grows two ugly truths about the way it used to be.

    to go to the spirit of your post - whenever i hear white people waxing nostalgic about when they were kids or their parents were kids or when immigrants were righteous (read whiteous) - my immediate thoughts are 'well, right, unless you were black' or 'i wonder if any of that could have taken place without us seconding an entire segment of the population'. so while i might love to see the fashion or the music or even be present while some of the revolutionary ideas were bursting through . . .

    on the other hand myblackfriendsays - why do you assume you are traveling back in time to this country? or for that matter - what if you traveled back in time to this country before any of us got here - voluntarily or forced? or, lots of people i know will say ancient greece or egypt - and history shows no black / white divide during those time periods; at least none i am aware of.

  6. Yeah, no. I'm always saying how lucky we are to live in the time we do. Usually right after someone I know has laparoscopic surgery or something. Our humanity may not be keeping up with our technology, but I'm still grateful for our technology.

  7. I took one restraint: that I had to be in some sense me -- a white same sex loving man. That eliminated one wish: to be a two spirit north american on the plains in the 18th or 19th century.

    My next thought is of Whitman, and to be a white gay man in the 19th century US -- but in the Civil War? I don't think so, too rough.

    So I go to a place of wishing for high privilege and being a son of an elite family in Athens, and a student of Aristotle in his Lyceum, a beautiful graceful athlete, a eromenos to a handsome and wise Senator. Maybe I could still be a rebel and argue for the freedom of women and slaves when I were later a military hero in my classmate Alexander's army and later still a senator in turn. And finally end up as an aging philosopher scientist, enlarging the budding natural science of biology, with a pleasing eromenos of my own.

  8. Anonymous7:30 AM

    I think I'd actually go back to the 60s. I like being in the center of the action, and I'd like to think I'd be part of the change. My MA research was on the '68 Student Movement in West Germany, and it just seems like such an exciting time of HOPE.

    Interesting that you seem to limit your time machine to American history, where, I agree, almost any point in the past would be worse for you. What if you went back further? What if you went to Africa? I suppose you wouldn't fit in there either, as you're not "black enough," but wouldn't it be great if people thought of Africa and thought of Great Zimbabwe and Mali as well as famine in Ethiopia and genocide in the Sudan? What about our colonial past has made us see Africa as a continent of poverty and chaos instead of one with a more complicated past.