Nostalgia At War With Reality

Women protesting racial integration in the “Good Old Days” of 1960.

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. It can be like a little weed after a hard day at work, pretty much harmless. Or it can be a path to delusion.

Nostalgia is fine for remembering a favorite song of your teen years, or a movie you recall fondly. It’s great for recalling beloved relatives and gatherings, like what many of us do during the holiday season. But nostalgia that denies reality is not great.

This kind of nostalgia is more or less denial. I hear it from time to time. One example of it is people I know from rural areas in Pennsylvania who insist they never saw racism in their town growing up. I saw it growing up in my pretty diverse neighborhood and let’s face it, racism in rural places in America is not exactly out of the ordinary.

I don’t think it’s due to anything overly malicious in most cases, just a desire not to think that where they grew up had anything bad going on in it. Sometimes people will use an example of a few people of color in their town and say that they never seemed to feel racism was a problem. Well, I have talked to some Black people who were in that situation and their memory is different. Of course, you never heard anything from them about racism. They were at or under 1% of the local population, so it was better to keep a low profile.

This is not to say all small-town people are racists. I currently reside in a small town, and while there are Confederate flags out in the open in a few cases, I can’t use that to judge the entire town. But I do know what America is, and has always been – a nation that struggles with racism.

For example, those old lynching photos from the first half of the 20th Century, with the smiling people pointing and laughing at a dead, disfigured human body. Those people did not crawl out of the ground. They were grandpas, and papas, and mee-maws, and sweet Aunt Jane, and so on. It’s tough to face up to that reality, so better to invent a misty-eyed nostalgia. I wonder if the Black families who lived through those days have nostalgia for that time.

Nostalgia can even be used as a weapon. Just ask any trans person. There is this odd idea that being transgender is this new thing that happened suddenly over the last several years as if it is a fad. This is not true, as there is a long history of transgender people existing. In fact, in some Native American cultures, they were considered to have two spirits, a male and a female, and also were revered. Often, they served as shamans and medicine people.

These people also claim that there are “no old transgender” persons, which is demonstrably false. It is quite obvious why people might think this, because transgender was not acceptable in mid-20th Century America, so few were out and open. A similar situation can be found with left-handed people. For a long time, being left-handed was considered tantamount to having a disability, so left-handed children were forced to be right-handed. This meant that left-handed people were “non-existent.” When this ended, surprise-surprise, the number of left-handed people suddenly increased.

I think people denying that trans people existed in history may also have something to do with the fact that acknowledging that there always have been transgender folks means one might find some unsavory people who shared the same ideas about the trans community back in say, the early 30s, as one does now.

I also hear people pine for the simpler time of their youth, but please note, that is making less and less sense. That is increasingly meaning some pretty complex times, such as the 1960s and 1970s. While we did not have quite the deep threat to democracy then as we do now, it was not exactly Leave It to Beaver time. I also have a pretty distinct memory of hearing older relatives back in the 1970s and 1980s lament how the current time wasn’t anything like the much better time of their youth. Which, in some cases, meant the Great Depression and World War II. Oh, the good old days of struggling to eat and getting news about a relative dying in a far-off land…

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, nostalgia is a powerful drug. Perhaps, as Pittsburgh-area documentarian Rick Sebak says, nostalgia and memories are different things. Sebak, who is well-known in PBS circles for his documentaries about days go by, makes a strong point about the difference in this 2019 opinion piece for Pittsburgh Magazine.

Pining for the past can be dangerous, and lead us to stuff like Make America Great Again. Treasure the good memories, but don’t let them cloud our minds and miss opportunities for a great future.

The last word goes to Prince, who mined his musical memories for the excellent 2004 album “Musicology.”

One thought on “Nostalgia At War With Reality

  1. Do the women, who dressed as men, enlisted as men, and fought in the Civil War as men, some of which were only found to be women after their deaths in combat, count as “transgender”?

    Oh, but they were busy killing “Traitors in Defense of Slavery”, so too woke to count.

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