III: The Misplaced Longing for Scarlett O'Hara

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Growing up in a small New England town in the 50’s and 60’s had its benefits for a rambunctious white kid like me. You could ride to the beach on your bike and get in for free, everyone’s favorite son. Walk to your elementary school two blocks away, worrying only about the chow dogs up the street who barked just a little too much. Early evenings at the local library, trying to read a book for social studies without staring at the strange white straps appearing beneath girls’ blouses. Horse chestnuts in the Fall, snow in the fort all winter, spring and summer breezes off the Thames River, beckoning, always beckoning to try, just once, to fly. Seemed like a good life to a twelve year-old.

That’s why the Prides confused me. They were the “almost rich family” two houses away. The only manicured lawn with their own gardener; four more rooms than anyone else; two great-looking kids (blonde, very blonde; one of them, the girl, truly beautiful); two new cars every other year; members of the snooty Shenacossett Beach Club…all that stuff…so why was Mr. Pride so unhappy?

Fred Pride was the most handsome, best-dressed, most sophisticated father on the block. That’s why his unhappiness seemed like such a mystery to me. At least my father had reasons to be unhappy, even if I didn’t agree with them: he couldn’t talk very well, was embarrassed by his blue collar. But Mr. Pride didn’t have any visible reasons for his drinking. What could it be? Why would a successful, white, established father of two beautiful kids be drinking himself to death?

I caught a glimpse only once. The movie “Gone With the Wind” was going to be on TV for the first time, and he told all us kids we had to see it, “the best movie ever made.” Whoa! Best movie every made! Now that was a movie I wanted to see. As long as it was, four hours with commercials, I managed to stay up and watch the whole thing.

To tell you the truth, I liked it. All that fire, and Rhett Butler was cool like I hoped to be someday and Scarlett O-Hara was definitely not boring, especially when Rhett was around. But Ashley was such a wimp, and her sister cried way too much, and the black people talked funny in ways that left me slightly uncomfortable. And damn, it was long. Okay, it was good. But Mr. Pride, why was it the best picture ever made?

That next afternoon, Virginia-born Fred Pride looked at me with the seriousness adults have when they know they’re making an important point to a kid. Steve, as you grow older, you’ll see: it’s all about a lost life, a better way of living, that we don’t have any more. Someday you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Damned if I ever did. A few years later, Fred Pride died from drinking he couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. But I never stopped thinking about my almost rich neighbor and his perfect life, drowned in the raging solace of too much alcohol. How could someone who seemingly had it all feel he had so little that he longed for a life not only long past but built on slavery and the open supremacy of white people?

As I reflect on the white fathers I knew, they each carried mysteries with them I never understood. Having returned to “ Gone With the Wind” as an adult, I clearly see its coda of longing for white supremacy and agrarian purity built on the backs of Black people who happily knew their place. If that was what fred Pride longed for, what was it about the material riches of his actual life and his ‘perfect’ nuclear family that left him still feeling so empty, unsatisfied, unfulfilled? Had he constructed meaning around a longing for a racist past and a materially comfortable, spiritually isolated present that drove him to despair?

So many white fathers I grew up with were told that they were ‘better” than others, especially people of color, that they were “good” because of what they had (a house, a car, a well-paying job)and, not incidentally, “better” for what they weren’t. Maybe that neat construction of their identity, as manicured as Fred Pride’s lawn, caused far more harm than they ever knew. With Barack Obama opening our nation to a new dialogue on what it means “to be” many things, including fathers, maybe we can together unravel the mystery of why so many white fathers can have so much and still feel unfulfilled. The answer to that and (many other questions about race and power and privilege) promises to be a rich one. Just don’t expect to find it in old movies.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on July 26, 2008 12:35 PM.

II: The Sadness & Privilege of White Men was the previous entry in this blog.

IV: W.E. Burghardt Dubois & Me is the next entry in this blog.

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