When I Was A Child

“Above all else, the important thing was what we ‘planned to do with our lives.’ That each of us must do something was as inevitable as breathing for we owed a ‘debt to society which must be paid.’ This was a family commandment” (820).

“Yes, there were slaves, far too many of them in  the family, but that was your grandfather’s mistake, not yours. The past has been lived. It is gone. The future is yours. What are you going to do with it” ( 820).

“We lived in the same segregated life as did other southerners but our parents talked excessively Christian and democratic terms” (820).

“We were told that also to be ‘radical‘ is bad, silly too; and that one must always conform to the ‘best behavior’ of one’s community and make it better if one can” (821).

“We were taught that we were superior not to people but to hate and resentment, and that no member of the Smith family could stoop so low as to have an enemy. No matter what injury was done us, we must not injure ourselves further by retaliating. That was a family commandment too” (821).

The above quotes from “When I Was A Child” by Lillian Smith are pertinent to my interpretation of her short essay. In general, I believe that Lillian Smith’s parents thought of their children as The Future, but they themselves were not brave enough to go against their community’s beliefs on segregation, and therefore could not prove to their children that social change is possible and that this kind of change is acceptable–that you won’t be thought less of for believing in something that is not the social norm of your neighbor, something that would be considered by most: Radical.

Smith’s typical southern, Christian, democratic, law-abiding parents were remorseful for their forebearers’ mistake of owning slaves. Yet when given the opportunity to finally turn the tide on a racial issues, in the south where segregation reigns unquestioned, they buckle to conform, even though they know that making little Janie return to the colored part of town, just when she got acclimated to her new diggs. The following passage proves that Lillian Smith knew that the decision her parents had made was wrong, knew that they knew it was wrong, yet still did not know how to buck the system so that Janie could stay.

“But I knew, though I said it firmly, that something was wrong. I knew my father and mother whom I passionately admired had done which did not in with their teachings. I knew they had betrayed something which they held dear. And I was shamed by their failure and frightened, for I felt that they were no longer as powerful as I had thought. There was something Out There that was stronger than they and I could not bear to believe it. I could not confess that my father, who had always solved the family dilemmas easily and with laughter, could not solve this. I knew that my mother[,] who was so good to children[,] did not believe in her heart that she was being good to this child. There was not a word in my mind that said it but my body knew and my glands, and I was filled with anxiety” (824).

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One thought on “When I Was A Child

  1. I like the quotations you used to further your points. It is painful to watch this family have to compromise one set of beliefs to obey the other. While the Smiths would love to act according to the love in their hearts, their minds will not let them stick out among society. Conformity is too-often a priority, whether it can be admitted or not.

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