Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Past Is Creepy

Photo: Pensiero, Flickr Creative Commons

I listened to a Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast today about the Crafts, a slave couple from Georgia who bluffed their way to the free states before the Civil War by train and ship. It's a fascinating story, and one I'd heard before, but it got me thinking. This is really related to another recent post about this era in my homeland's history, but thinking too hard about the past is a good way to lose your security in your sense of self. If I'd been a product of that era, would I be the avid liberal on racial issues that I am today? After all, there's no social shame in believing in the equality of races even in the most backwards pockets of the South now. There are people who won't agree with you, but they aren't so outspoken and dominant now as to make people like me feel like outcasts. Actually, I feel like more of a social misfit for typically voting Democrat than I do for treating all of my students alike. In this era, it's not hard for me to think that way.

But back then, during the time of the Crafts' escape, it would have been an entirely different story. So many things would have been different. Would I have been exposed to viewpoints differing from the dominant view that would have been likely in my family and friends? If I had been exposed, would I have had enough strength and reason to break with my family on this issue? There is so much in our current society that helps me be different, my family not being a bunch of raving racists being only one part of it. I don't know what would have happened then. Sure, I broke from my family and culture with my religious views a long time ago, but religion can be kept private and the differences personally ignored. I'm not sure more practical social issues would have been so easy to disregard.

It's disconcerting being reminded how much one may be a creation of one's environment. Having your own lack of complete ownership of who you are taken away from you is like suddenly realizing the ground has disappeared.

The good news is this is all impractical philosophy, at least on a personal level in my case. I am who I am now and will never have to worry about who I'd have been in the past.


Courtney said...

I also occasionally wonder about who I'd be if I'd been born long in the past as well. I think everyone is a product of their environment and upbringing, and very few personality traits are set at birth, so it's safe to say I'd have been almost completely different.

I also wonder just how many people in the antebellum South knew deep down that slavery was wrong. Considering most of the Western world had abolished slavery long before the U.S. did, I'm guessing most people had been at least introduced to the idea that slavery wasn't going to last. It's possible that a lot of Southerners knew they were doing something wrong, but used the old "but everyone else is doing it too" excuse to continue their behavior.

Julie said...

When thinking about me & the past, I mostly limit myself to giving thanks for modern conveniences. Love me some running water!

Mickey said...

I think about the same thing sometimes, but I feel like some of us (you and I included) tend to always look at things from a slightly different angle than the norm, and that would have been true for us no matter what era we lived in. And we're smart enough to recognize bullshit. Usually.