“Equality may perhaps be a right, but no power on earth can ever turn it into a fact.” ~Honore de Balzac
When the founding fathers gave us “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776), they meant a classless society. No more caste, as in India. No more class, as in Britain. No more royalty or titled persons. Yet even their own Constitution (1789) betrayed them because it made a slave another man’s personal property, worth three-fifths1 of one vote, to be cast by his owner. Their own mores betrayed them because many had vast estates, or even lean cottages, manned by servants. Primogeniture was still being practiced. So, at the time, “created equal” may have legally granted a certain status to untitled white males, but to the rest of us it conveyed little.2
In truth, beyond the fact that we are all human beings, we are not “created equal.” We come with DNA, family and personal traits, inherited sin, inherited wealth (or poverty), physical appearance, size, color, race, gender, and a host of individual peculiarities that make us each unique. And often uniquely liked or disliked because of them. Like the redheaded stepchild.
Literature abounds with characters who are distinctly unequal—indeed, is this not the richness and purpose of literature: to acquaint us with such characters?—characters like Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, Cinderella and her stepsisters, Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond, Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes, Quasimodo and Claude Frollo, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. If you had told these characters that they could change their destiny or morph into an opposing character by their own personal effort—without supernatural intervention—they would have told you, “No way.” Thomas Wolfe, perceiving that truth, wrote a short story about it: “No Door.”
Not just authors, but also social scientists have studied how persons function in society and have written reams about it. How dare a layman even express opinion on the subject until he has read the social theorists and the research! We are not born “blank tablets,” and we do not have equal chance at opportunity. Life is easier for the tall and the beautiful, for the lithe and slender, for the well-proportioned and the correctly postured, for the accomplished and talented, the energetic and outgoing, for the rich and lighthearted, the networked and well-connected, for those with a charming smile, even if they have no scruples. This is observable by even the dullest among us.
One Sunday in church, as I was seated in the Commons, a white couple with two children sat down opposite me. The husband and father looked normal. The wife and children were pale and listless, didn’t appear to have any personality, as if drained of life. Their limp hair showed malnutrition. Their clothes were humble. They could’ve used a bath, a meal, and some serious attention. Not one of the three made a sound, smiled, or made eye contact. They gazed off in the distance or kept their head bowed. The husband and father smiled and was publicly cordial. I knew the type. A bully. Probably spent all his money on himself.
Meanwhile across the way was a darling little girl, whose dark shiny, bouncy hair was vibrant with health and nutrition, wearing beautiful, rich-colored clothes, her eyes dancing with happiness. Why is it, I thought, that one child is born into this poor home and neglected while another is born into this nurturing place and fussed over? It seemed unfair. It is unfair. Life is unfair. Some of us are more privileged, “unequal,” than others.
“All this talk about equality. The only thing people really have in common is that they are all going to die.” ~Bob Dylan
Copyright © 2016 Alexandra Lee
1 US Constitution, Art 1, Sect II, ¶ 3. Representation in the House. Apprentices and indentured servants were counted (presumably male); Native Americans were excluded; slaves were counted as three-fifths; women were unmentioned.
2 Amendments to the US Constitution have, since then, addressed certain inequalities.