The summer my nephew was 10, my daughters and I spent a long piece of the summer with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia. We were visiting because of family illness, and so it was me and the kids and a palpable uncertainty and unhappiness, and sweltering days and nights – and, since we are this kind of family, we laughed a lot, even at things that may not have been hugely funny. The four kids and myself explored the surrounding woods and the downtown, and my nephew – a boy hungry for history and stories – offered a near nonstop commentary about his hometown’s past. My own daughters, who’ve lived in woodsy Vermont all their lives, were mystified by the sprawling historic mansions, the prolific Civil War statues, the presence of the past.
In one long ramble, my nephew mentioned the War of Northern Aggression – a name never mentioned in my New Hampshire public schooling. He was stunned I’d never heard the term.
Really? he asked.
Really. Like that, I was ashamed, suddenly seeing this sticky and different place more foreign and infinitely more complex than I’d imagined. The statues, the big houses, my nephew’s intricate stories were but keyholes, tiny slits into a titanic past.
And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.
– Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail, 1963