“I’d kill to have had your childhood,” a writer friend once told me. She envied my bottomless pit of tragic inspiration.
I, on the other hand, would kill to have had anything but.
Things are not always as they seem, as proven by the iconic 1991 photograph of a tiara-adorned little girl dressed up as a princess, with a bleak Bronx street in the background.
But the life of 6-year-old Guissette Muniz was no sob story. She was a happy kid. “My entire family lived in that area,” she said. “We knew everyone and anyone who came by.” The photographer captured her standing outside her building, where she had gone to escape her uncle, who was inside, dressed head to toe as Chucky for Halloween.
“I was frightened,” she said. But of Chucky, not her family or neighborhood.
My family was a Horatio Alger story in reverse. If you go back far enough, we look pretty good. My grandfather was a college professor. My grandmother was director of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, and in Texas that’s getting close to royalty.
My father was an engineer who, in 1970, pulled down $40,000 a year. But we lived in a $90-a-month rental home. Perhaps I was the only white kid in America who watched TV’s “Amos ‘n’ Andy” with the same sense of wonder as Ricky and Lucy: What a clean, well-lighted place! I wish I lived there. I wish I knew these people.
I’ve written about my family before, in Growing Up White Trash. And about my late father. One of my readers objected to my post, Un-Fathers Day. At least you had a father, he commented. At least he put food on the table.
But that sentiment would depend on the father, and what he was doing. My suburb was segregated, but had I lived near the proverbial black families headed by single mothers, I might have thought: How did they get rid of the father? And how can we do the same?
I was already halfway there anyway, with a lioness for a grandmother.
I don’t fit neatly into any category — middle class, white, professional, privileged. So I celebrated a bi-racial president, and I keep hoping that someday I’ll wake up to a post-racial America. When I hear racists talk (and in Texas you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one) I think of the “Myth of Fingerprints,” a 1997 film named after the Paul Simon song, “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.”
In a nutshell: We’re all the same.
The 1960s, as “Mad Men” fans know, was a time of wrenching change, and that’s what inspired my colleague Mary C. Curtis to become a journalist. The history being made when she was a child was “more exciting than princesses in long, flowing gowns. Someone had to write it all down.”
The 1960s was also a time of family secrets. Hard to imagine in our confessional, post-Oprah, 1-800-VICTIMS era, but when I was a kid, secrets destroyed kids. A daily barrage of lies and smokescreens turned the concept of truth into a glittering jewel. And turned me into a writer.
As for black princesses: Bring ’em on.
But don’t assume. The Bronx princess in the 1991 photograph was not the picture of desolation she appeared to be. It’s the internal life of a family that makes – or breaks – the children.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2009]