My toddler grandson and I FaceTime most mornings as he eats breakfast and I sip my coffee. He adores scrambled eggs, stuffing chubby fistfuls into his mouth in between offering them across his high chair tray to the phone propped up on the counter. I pretend to take a bite and we both giggle.
“Vince, you would make your great great grandfather so proud!” I say. “Eggs used to be the family business!”
My comment was intended not so much for Vince as for his mama, drinking her coffee at the kitchen table behind him. Tall, lithe, with tanned skin, thick dark brown hair and indigo eyes, she bears a striking resemblance to my grandfather, her great grandfather, Vince’s great great grandfather, whom she has never met. Papa made a living during and after the Great Depression as an egg dealer, the middleman between local farm wives and local mom and pop groceries, restaurants and bakeries. He retired just as agribusiness began to make his role redundant in the 1960s.
Not just genes but memories and values travel along this river of life, one generation to the next. My grandson Vince will grow up thinking of my grandfather Papa as a far-off ancestor, someone who was born a century and a quarter before him, just as I think of my nineteenth century relatives. He will know Papa through family lore, and understand that he is connected to him not just by blood but by experience, in this case, the harmless one of loving scrambled eggs. Maybe his own children, my great grandchildren, will perpetuate Papa’s lanky good looks.
For many of my fellow Americans, ancestral connections can be much more fraught. Ruby Bridges is five years younger than I am. Six years old in 1960, she integrated the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, spending an entire year as the only student in a classroom with the only teacher in the school, a native Bostonian, who would deign to instruct her. Her Yankee teacher was fired at the end of the year, as was Ruby’s father. Her grandfather was evicted from the farm he had sharecropped for a quarter of a century. Challenging the racial status quo had material as well as psychological consequences for both races.
Ruby was escorted to her new all-white school every day by four federal marshals. She endured curses, epithets, and most frightening of all, the sight of a woman holding a tiny casket containing a black baby doll. Nevertheless, she was resolute. “Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, ‘She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her'” (Susannah Abbey, Freedom Hero: Ruby Bridges).
Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting, “The Problem We all Live With,” depicts not just little Ruby walking to school in her white dress, head held high, protected at her front and back by white male federal agents in business suits. Scrawled in faint letters on the wall behind her we see the word NIGGER. President Obama had the painting hung in the West Wing outside of his office as an homage not just to Bridges, but to all of those who paved the way for him, the first Black person to integrate the Oval Office.
Bridges has four sons, and one would expect, grandchildren. Like me, her lived experience encompasses two generations back and two generations forward. Her grandparents could have related stories to her about their parents and grandparents, just as mine told me about my nineteenth century forebears. We can both pass on this knowledge to our own grandchildren, just as we might pass along a way of laughing, a tone of voice, feet with second toes longer than first, or a distinctive hairline or skin tone.
Ruby’s great grandparents were probably enslaved, her great great grandparents almost certainly were. That lived experience is not ancient history. Neither is the prejudice that perpetuated it. Look at the clamor over Nascar banning the flying of the Confederate flag! One local quoted in this eye-opening Washington Post article, written before the only black Nascar driver found a noose hanging in his garage at the track in Taladega, characterized the flag ban as “denigrating everything that I am — white, male, Christian, gun-toting.”
Even though the present might be a foreign country to our great great grandparents, to riff on that famous quotation, we don’t seem to be doing things entirely differently. We may be in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, but it seems that the values and memories of generations past persist, at once a comfort and a curse.
My wish for Vince and for Ruby Bridge’s grandchildren is that they inherit from us a world with equality and justice for all. Ruby continues to do her part in making it so. It starts with the family. As she famously said:
May both our grandchildren live to see (and to perpetuate) a more tolerant future.