I was a VISTA volunteer for the entire year of 1990 and never told my father. I lived in a tiny, white farm house in rural South Carolina near a small town, population 1,000: 500 whites on one side, 500 blacks on the other. I taught illiterate adults how to read and write, mostly older African American women who had dropped out of school around 4th grade—to work the fields, to wipe the butts of white babies, to wash dishes for white women in town.
Why? I relished my time with my students and feared he would spoil it for me. A social conservative in the art world, he was a rarity. He would call my service “ideal” or “liberal.” Best to keep it to myself. Friends my age have told similar stories, hiding information from their fathers. I wonder if there is something about this generation of fathers: who grew up during the Depression; who fought the great war and returned and married and moved to the suburbs and worked and saved enough cash to buy, of all things, a washer, dryer and television; who watched, a bit dumb struck, as cultural events of the ‘60s and ‘70s twisted everything backwards or sideways.
They learned to proceed with caution. We learned to withhold.
One day, we met in Charleston for the annual, internationally acclaimed Spoleto arts festival. Artists had installed site-specific projects all over the city, many of them profoundly moving, highlighting the city’s rich, violent, sorrowful ties to slavery. Late in the day we trudged in the 95-degree humidity up the spiral staircase to the top floor of the old Middleton-Pinckney House to see the exhibit “Honey in the Rock (Got to Feed God Children)” by Elizabeth Newman. The exhibit featured the complicated relationships between black nursemaids and the white children. Through the center of the nursery a doll dressed as a black “dah” (called “mammy” in other parts of the south) walked a tight rope above a floor dusted with baby powder. In the adjacent closet? Hundreds of tiny photos of black babies, tucked away, hidden. Old, pain-ridden, pleading spirituals played on a gramophone in the diaper-changing area. Dad was so moved by the exhibit he had to sit down on the spiral steps and catch his breath.