People All Work on the Mississippi
“What do people do on a cruise ship?” I asked an upper-middle-class audience years ago. Eat, swim, dance, play shuffleboard, they suggested. What else? Watch shows, listen to lectures, go to a spa. As I pressed for more, the suggestions slowed. At last the ideas ran out.
Nobody suggested that people on a cruise ship wash dishes, tend bar, or make the beds. When I noted this, they dismissed it as frame of reference.
My sociologist father first pointed out to me that “people” tends to mean people like oneself, not all humankind. The version of “Old Man River” on our Showboat album had the line, “People all work on the Mississippi while the white folks play.”* How could all the people be working if some were playing? Dad’s response explained so much over the years, like languages where the ethnic group name is the word for “man.”
Webster’s calls frame of reference “a set of ideas, conditions, or assumptions that determine how something will be approached, perceived, or understood.” There’s nothing wrong with having a frame of reference. We probably can’t avoid it. The problems arise when we confuse our frame of reference with universal truth, or people like ourselves with humankind.
*Others changed the taboo original to “darkies,” “colored folk,” or “we all.” I haven’t been able to trace a “people” version but that’s my memory of it.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.