I sound like some old man on a little front porch, springing back and forth in a creaky old rocking chair, pontificating between bull’s-eyes in a spittoon when I begin a sentence with “When I was a kid...” In truth I’m disturbed by my feelings and observations, since I am still a relatively young mother of three, and the world is indeed in a precarious state. I am not blind to the rolling back eyes of my cheeky teenagers who try to escape the room when I begin to express my disgust with what I witness on the evening “news.” However, things being what they are, I find myself in allegiance with that decidedly homespun American image of wisdom on a porch.  And much to my children’s chagrin, I begin many a sentence these days with – “When I was a kid...” 

We were all pummeled with mantras like, “Honesty is the best policy”; “It is better to give than to receive”; and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Indeed the stories of some of the most contentious moments in our long history were taught to me in public school, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, The Civil Rights Act, and the controversial protests against the Viet Nam War. And they were all expressions of our nation’s deeply rooted social conscience, tied to the Enlightenment values expressed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence. We held these truths to be self evident and the adults around us enforced those ideals in the things they said.

But the mixed messages were everywhere. As it was on Valentine’s Day, in the third grade, our paper heart pockets (the ones we made in “art time” with construction paper and yarn) were only half full -- even though the teacher was very clear when she instructed the children to give to all students equally. Still, we were filled with hope by the assertion of the Golden Rule. And in the sixth grade, everyone was allowed to join the soft-ball team, even though we were picked second-to-last by the popular captain to play as a resented alternate, and we ducked when the ball came flying straight at our heads, standing like targets in the outfield.  We were a first hand witness to reality. But as it was in those precious childhood memories, those competing forces of Social Darwinism and Enlightenment Values continue to do battle in our hearts.

Goodness and kindness are often depicted as weak and spineless traits by the bullying forces of this new phase of Social Darwinism. But that same scorned empathic quality that is implanted in our hearts as students in American values will rise up in heated protest. We have not striven toward Enlightenment through weakness; we have crawled towards higher ideals out of oppression. Decency is a mighty enemy! The common decency that exists in most human beings is ignited when affronted by great wrong. The salve of deep anger is recognition of that broken trust. It is our sacred homage to innocence. It is the Frankincense and Myrrh burning on the altar of true love. It is the power of the people. It is righteous indignation. We change things because we cannot abide the unfairness we were told should not exist. Hope and change are carried forward on the blistered hearts of the oppressed. 

Recently my youngest was required to read the Declaration of Independence for a school project. We read about the “long train of abuses” and how the Founding Fathers felt it was “their right”, “…their duty, to throw off such government”; we read about the pledging of “Lives”, “Fortunes” and “Sacred honor” to the cause. Before long, I was drawn to the exquisiteness of this amazing document.  Tears involuntarily rolled down my cheeks, as if taking a leisurely stroll down memory lane.  I remembered back to Civics Class in high school and exhumed the fury of my fierce debates, when I argued that all men (and women) were created equal, and I remembered how I was encouraged to attend rallies against cutting local property tax at the expense of public schools. Things seemed simple then, but upon reflection, I realized they were not. We had the bloodbath of Viet Nam, the numbing disillusionment of Nixon’s lies, the savings and loan scams and the scandalous Iran Contra affair of the Eighties (along with the slow return to pastel clothing and button-down collars). What is so different now? The examples of lying, cheating and stealing to succeed have not changed, but neither have the opposing forces of anger, activism and charity. We stand dumb before the sedation of sound-bite media, and we deride our obfuscating politicians, and wag our heads at the paralyzing corruption of deregulated corporate greed, but we are not pushed away from our enlightened goals because the soul of America remains human still. 

And as I read the Declaration of Independence with my boy I thought on our white Founding Fathers and how flawed they were; but I loved them for what they wrote. And I promptly lectured my children. I told them that we lived in a time when people were filled with so much desperation to feel and know less. I said that action is the only inoculation against the disease of indifference.  I urged my children to open up their little eyes and look around at the bloody mess my generation has made of things, so I could shield them from the possibility of continuing our legacy of depravity. I called my children to activism. I told them to hold on to what is right and good. And it all came pouring out of me, like crystal clear water, and they drank it in like thirsty refugees.  My daughter seemed inspired as she blurted out with genuine child-like faith, “You should be President, Mommy!”  And we talked and talked some more about the frightening state of things now, and – when I was a kid.

AuthorAngela Garcia Combs