Fitter families? Separation, division under progress’ banner

Nov. 02, 2013 @ 12:03 PM

I have lived in North Carolina since the summer of 1999, but I had never been to the State Fair.   I finally took a posse of girls last weekend. 

We ate too much, and we spent too much money playing games you can’t win.  But my youngest daughter has a keen shooting eye, it turns out.  She won a giant, plush duck at a water pistol gallery.  I fooled one of the “guess your age” guys by 13 years and won a little duck, along with a ridiculously self-satisfied smirk, which I wore for several days.   We had as much fun talking with strangers in the queue for the hurl-a-whirl as we did on the actual ride itself.  The State Fair is a giant slice of North Carolina humanity, and we didn’t have to pay extra for the fantastic variety of home.  Fried Oreos, the best free hushpuppies on the planet, black coffee from the friendly kids at the Future Farmers of America booth . . . To borrow an English idiom, it is all part of life’s rich pageant.

When my grandmother was a little girl, state fairs didn’t have multiple rides named “Vortex” or competing, synthesized dance music coming from large stereos, and I don’t think you had to wash up with anti-microbial soap after petting the world’s biggest hog.  It was a simpler time, maybe.  But fairs in those days had one feature I am glad we’ve lost.   For decades in the first half of the 20th century, good Christian citizens across the heartland walked into buildings marked “Fitter Families for Future Firesides” and had themselves tested for eugenic fitness.  Families judged worthy of a B+ or higher received medals that declared “Yea I have a goodly heritage.”  My grandmother’s generation may have been better able than today’s to recognize the “goodly heritage” phrase as biblical (Psalm 16), but many Christians at the time didn’t protest this misapplication.  The Psalm sings praises to God, who alone secures goodness.  The “Fitter Family” medal featured two distinctly Aryan parents pouring out symbolic goodness to their lone toddler, who stands apart, with upturned hands. 

North Carolina’s grim history of forced or coerced sterilization is part of a larger story.  And don’t let anyone tell you the story is solely southern.  The pattern of eugenics in our state is marked by intricate, distinctly southern fissures, but the summons to breed better families was popularized across the U.S., preached in mainline Protestant pulpits and advocated in distinguished halls of learning from New Haven, Conn., to Stanford, Calif.   One of the reasons I worked so hard with my publisher to secure the Norman Rockwell image on the cover of my second book, a book about parenthood, is that I wanted from the very beginning to signal that eugenics was neither idiosyncratic nor foreign.  Eugenics was as American as the state fair, apple pie, and Norman Rockwell (an artist I readily confess to loving). 

Some of the “best and brightest” Americans of Rockwell’s generation used their unique gifts to persuade people like my grandmother to internalize a sense of her responsibility to select a genetically fit mate, to choose genetically fit friends and to teach standards of eugenic fitness to children in their public and Sunday School classrooms.  By submitting themselves and their children to new, standardized intelligence and physical testing of various sorts, aspiring, mainstream Americans sought to prove their “goodly heritage.”  They were tricked to trade an inheritance of free grace for a mess of self-justifying porridge. 

Why learn history if you can’t help but just keep repeating the mistakes?  Here are two lessons I learned while researching eugenics.  First, the key men who were the grand strategists of the movement in the U.S. saw themselves as engaged in holy husbandry.  They viewed actual, individual human beings as examples of larger, population-wide problems or patterns.   They sought to comprehend and shape real people like you and me from the vantage point of a higher being, with a higher calling than merely mortal love.  

As a farmer might dispassionately choose which chickens to breed and which to isolate, these men wanted to manage human beings on a large scale, overseeing from above the advancement of the race.  Second, eugenic propaganda trained everyday people to internalize this way of being seen.  Teachers, farmers, and small business owners were encouraged to see themselves and their children as akin to non-human livestock in a large-scale agribusiness.  Eugenics was a concerted effort to teach people to assess themselves and their neighbors critically, and to accept the concept that each life requires proof of fitness for citizenry.  It was a good way to separate neighbor from neighbor, and to divide a person from within, under a banner of progress. 

Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.