I have a memory. It is of a friend so cut off from all that was accepted that she seems almost a breath, but she was important. I remember her face right as the tips of our breasts began to grow. Her face was firm, regular, the Greek classical look I’d been taught to associate with beauty. We were eleven years old. Somehow even as I saw her face, I saw its promise hollow out with poverty, her teeth begin to sink, but there was such fierce possibility in her eyes.
First I see her, then I see her mother, dark haired from a family of brownish blonds. Her mother, just thirteen years older than us, hovered, waiting for us outside our elementary school. She carried her own hopscotch chain, and the three of us would play. Now I see their home. Tar paper on wooden scaffolding, a junked truck, packs of friendly dogs. April. I say my friend’s name.
We shared one gleaming pair of patent leather shoes. My feet outgrew them by the time I had worn them three times. She loved them too, she said, because they came from me.
We were a mismatched pair. The school expected success from me and not from her. It was like the world swept her away from me. The forces that took her out of school were so strong we didn’t even get to say goodbye. One day, we were eleven, best friends, then we went to junior high, and she was gone.
I thought I knew what incest was. I heard it whispered about when grownups mentioned April and her mother. Foreclosed potential, I thought. In my memory adults explained that April had no hope because her family lived outside city limits. Past a line, fathers had absolute claim. There was a geography of hopelessness. Somehow I knew how wrong it was. The soles of my feet tingled with its injustice.
Idea of Injustice
Today, nearing eighty, I think about the idea of injustice. Why did my feet tingle when I thought of April? Something seemed so wrong, but I had no words for it. What happened to her life? I’ve been searching for a functional definition of justice as I write a book whose name came to me while I slept. I suddenly sat up in bed one night and said, “Redemptive Memory: Women Activists and the Search for Justice.”
My definition of justice seemed simple when I started to write. It was what I believed in since that time when I lost April to her father. It is when something seems terribly wrong. Do we know it when we feel it like I did as a child? Did April’s father have an absolute claim to her because he is a man? Because he is owned her as a parent? Because the hierarchy supported him? Didn’t the community have an obligation to her despite the fact that she lived beyond city limits?
What’s the Right Thing to Do?
I recently read Michael J. Sandel’s book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? He asks how we define a society as just and answers:
“To ask whether a society is just is to ask how it distributes the things we prize–income and wealth, duties and rights, powers and opportunities, offices and honors. A just society distributes these goods in the right way; it gives each person his or her due.” [p 19]
Outside City Limits
Certainly, by yanking April out of school our society took away from things we prize: the opportunity for a fulfilling and economically adequate life and her bodily, psychological, and sexual integrity, something world cultures are now beginning to recognize as a right for females as well as males. The community showed no respect for April or her mother’s life.
Also, Sandel says that we need to answer the question: “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” My childhood community answered that it was not part of the stories of those farthest on the margins of valued human characteristics. They were not part of the stories of those outside of city limits. Thus, April was to lose her innocence, and my good friend would be taken from me.
U.S.- Mexico Border
For the last 33 years I have lived in Tucson, AZ, a community near the U.S.- Mexico Border. When I hear about the injustice done to undocumented immigrants, the soles of my feet still tremble with the sense of wrongness I experienced when I was eleven years old. April had scant hope because she lived outside the city border.
Undocumented children also have little hope because they live outside the national border. Instead, they freeze, get sick, have little to eat, and are attacked by the violent while they huddle just south of the border. Now they and their families get covid-19.
Based on my reading and all my years of living, I believe in a universal human community and that all people share responsibilities for each other. My childhood community seemed to deny this responsibility to April and her mother to a degree that still shocks me. I also believe that to deal with women’s oppression, such as that experienced by April and her mother, we must deal with structural inequality, where a hierarchy is built directly into our society.
We must at all times realize that we are intersectional people, with multiple identities operating simultaneously. April was poor, female, and a child. She was also white. If she had been African American, she would have had additional obstacles. Consequently, changing structures require dealing with multiple levels of oppression
I also believe that women are especially empowered not by social change models imposed by the outside, but by grassroots work as agents of change themselves. Perhaps April and her mother physically survived their mistreatment, and some activist reached out to them and helped them empower themselves. Perhaps April had an extraordinary internal spirit and insight that led her to take leadership in such actions, despite being forced out of school and into an abusive situation.
Things like that do happen. Maria Elena Lucas, the farm worker organizer who I’ve written about earlier, is such an individual. She only had three years of school and was severely abused, but she reached out to other women like her and helped them have more productive and fulfilling lives.
A Geography of Hope
Those of us who were touched by lives like April’s and Maria Elena’s bear responsibility. We can do grassroots work ourselves. We can form alliances with those from different backgrounds than are own. April could not be expected to bear the weight of her life on her own.
We are a part of a web of life, a world community. No one is outside the city limits. No child’s whole being belongs to a father or the male structure that supports him. There should be a geography of hope.