, Research Paper
Benevolent Neglect in An American Childhood In An American Childhood, the autobiography of AnnieDillard, the issues of race and gender discrimination areexplored from the perspective of a young girl. By lookingat these societal issues from this fresh, new point of view,the reader is able to gain greater insight into the effectthat authority s influence had on the youth of Dillard sgeneration. Set in suburban Pittsburgh in the nineteenfifties, the story of Dillard s childhood is one filled withsubtle prejudice, outright bigotry, and unequal treatment ofthe boys and girls in her community. Although she was ableto emerge from her hometown an educated, bright, andtolerant woman, she is still a product of her environment.Overcoming the obstacles set up for her simply because sheis a female shaped who she is today and determined how shewould eventually look back on her childhood. As a young girlin Pittsburgh, we see that, as a result of her community sfailure to recognize her intelligence, self-worth, andphysical prowess, Dillard is plagued with childhood feelingsof inferiority and inadequacy compared to her male peers. When a child was born in Pittsburgh in the nineteenforties and fifties, his or her life was determined andpredestined at that moment, and any variation of his or herexpected course of action was to be approved by not only thechild s parents but also the major authority figures of thecommunity. And the expected course of action was the samefor everyone. For the boys, it was that he would succeed inschool, marry a girl from Pittsburgh, go to work and supporthis family, and …that they would inherit corporatePittsburgh (92). For the girls, it was that she would getthrough school, marry a boy from Pittsburgh, stay at homeand raise the children and keep house, and be content withthis lifestyle. However, this was not the path that AnnieDillard, the girl wise beyond her years, wanted to take. Butnot even she was aware of her will to go against authorityyet. Dillard had a different mindset, and assumed thateveryone thought the way she did. When she thought about the her community s boys futures, she imagined that, like her,they dreamed of …running away to sea, of curing cancer,of playing for the Pirates, of painting in Paris… (92). It was then,her late teens, that Dillard realized that shedid not want what she and her friends were headed for, orwhat her mother had to settle for; she had ambitions beyondhouse-keeping and Pittsburgh. Yet as a young girl, Dillardwas a victim of the attitude around her that the boys weresuperior beings to the girls. Evidence of this is embeddedall throughout Dillard s childhood. Being a very athletic girl, Dillard was accepted by hermale peers as a real competitive equal and therefore allowedto play football with them. But instead of looking at her
physical abilities as proof that society was wrong aboutgirls universal inferiority, she scorned the girls her ageand their girly sports because … nothing girls didcould compare with it [football] (45). Dillard, clearlyconfused, could turn her ability to identify with the girlson and off like this. For example, just after associatingherself with the boys and their football games here, she canthen reclaim her feminine side, completely detaching fromthe boys, and look at them as superiors by saying that …all along the boys had been in the process of becomingresponsible members of an actual and moral world wesmall-minded and fast-talking girls had never heard of (91).She belittles herself and her fellow female peers by callingthem small-minded and fast-talking, with no idea that thisis not the truth, but the false impression that society hascaused by idolizing the boys and not appreciating the girls. At one point, Dillard makes a reference to how thegirls looked at the boys in school. It seems that even if aboy had made a statement and been dead wrong, the girlswould have disregarded the truth to accept the new truth spoken by the boy. Dillard confessed: We girls knew precisely the limits of the possible and the thinkable, we thought, and were permanently astonished to learn that we were wrong. Whose idea of sophistication was it, after all, to pay attention in Latin class? It was the boys idea. Everything was. Everything they thought of was bold and original like that(185). This illustrates how disillusioned the girls were tothe reality of the boys actual level of intelligence andsuperiority because of society s influence. Everyone in the community, from the parents to thedance instructors to the church officials, entirelyneglected to acknowledge, validate, and appreciate thegirls self-worth and value as members of society. As aresult, the girls were left with feelings of inadequacy thatwere reflected in their attitude toward the boys. To thegirls, nothing the boys did seemed wrong, and this attitudeapplied to all aspects of the boys: their appearance, theirintellect, their athletic ability. The boys were perfect, asDillard notes in the passage, …for all practicalpurposes, no longer comical beasts now but walking gods whoconferred divine power with their least glances (90). It is no wonder that the girls would, typically, freelysubmit themselves to the predetermined life that thegenerations before them had ensured when they believe thisabout the boys. This unhealthy, unfair attitude caused bysociety contributes to the absence of Dillard s and theother girls adolescent self-esteem, and in effect, it alsosignifies the end of any hope to live lives of their ownchoosing for the future. Fortunately for Dillard, but sadlyfor the other girls, she was one of the few who recognizedthis and was able to leave behind the prejudices of hercommunity and find a life where she could do what she trulywanted.