The Clean Name, Or Not?

Among the mementos I collected from my family’s old house some years ago was an ugly little wooden plaque with a black face plate on it with my family name. The top had my family name in black with gold lettering. (Ironic when you read the poem.)

“You got it from your father, it was all he had to give.

So its yours to use and cherish, for as long as you may live.

If you lose the watch he gave you, it can always be replaced.

But a black mark on your name, son, can never be erased.

It was clean the day you took it, and a worthy name to bear.

When he got it from his father, there was no dishonor there.

So make sure you guard it wisely, after all is said and done.

You’ll be glad the name is spotless, when you give it to your son.”

I recoiled and shuddered when I first saw it. But something about it made it so campy and horrible that I couldn’t bear to throw it away. Now I love it like I love christiany kitsch. I did a web search on this anonymous poem and found that it’s actually well loved by a lot of people, especially after the father has died. What’s striking to me about this poem is how it reflects a completely modernist frame that the world has largely rebelled against by now. A last name meant something at one time, just as did a sense of local community. I’ve been reading in the Studs Terkel Reader these days for fun in my spare moments. He interviews fascinating people about significant social changes in American life over the twentieth century. One fear people constantly relate is this loss of a sense of togetherness and small town life.

But this idea of a “black mark” on a family name is outrageous to me. How does one go about getting a black mark? Is it easy? Is it hard? Is it imposed by the others around? Must it be for something scandalous or a simple misuderstanding? Couldn’t a man develop enemies for just being on the wrong side politically? There’s so much involved here. One thing that seems to be taught within families (so often that I think it’s taken for granted) is the creative ability to lie or leave out important information so as not to embarrass the family or spread rumor. Maybe it starts with the following instruction:

“Son, you’ve got to learn not to blurt out everything that pops into your mind.”

Now that sounds fine at first, like an important value. But what if the son learns over time that his father is in fact embarrassed by nearly everything he does in public. Won’t he get the idea that he’s better off not seen at all? This idea of “the black mark” is serious business. Especially when we consider that as our American culture is very good at ethically bifurcating right and wrong into socially pragmatic ways of appearing squeaky clean. It is forinstance perfectly justifiable to run a business that has been accumulating debt for years, while growing a significant credit rating and expanding in leaps and bounds. Healthy males, even Christian ones, are just expected to have an expanded fascination for the female form that plays out into constant looks and glances and subscriptions to “sports and health” magazines that foster this pursuit. It’s all part of being a man—arrrr! Neither of these things cause a black mark. In fact, excessive worry over finances or too much time spent in lust fantasy may be the mark of pansied paranoia! (So goes the reasoning.)

I never cease to be amazed by this culture of excess with a puritan conscience. So long as we suspend all rationality noone needs a name or a black mark on it!

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