reading recommendation: Red Diapers

I was flipping through the Times magazine this morning, thinking that I was going to write a post about the cover story on the Living Wage movement*, and I went off on a mental tangent that led me to write this post instead. WorkingLife has a pretty good post up about it, if you are interested in the subject.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about the book Red Diapers a lot. “Red diaper babies” was the term of art for kids who grew up in the American communist movement from the 20s to the 50s and 60s. This book is a collection of memoirs of kids who were Red Diaper babies, including one of the most famous Red Diaper babies of all–the younger son of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg (identified in the book as Robert Meeropol–he and his brother were adopted and changed their last names to the name of their adoptive family).

I’ve been thinking about this book so much, because there’s been a lot in the news that’s helped me imagine what the lives of these children must have been like. The whole ‘the government is eavesdropping on people’ situation is one that would have been very familiar to the families that are involved in the book. Many of them were spied on by the FBI, some for having acted on what today would be considered to be fairly pedestrian political beliefs (ie–the belief that African Americans should be able to sit anywhere they wanted to on the bus).

After the tragic events of 9/11 there was a period where I believed that either landisdad or I would have to quit our job, in order to ensure that one parent was around to raise our daughter (the Potato was not yet born). I was terrified that, as part of our government’s response to the attacks, we would be giving up civil liberties left right and center, and that activists like me and LD would be spied on. It didn’t help that a European that I knew through AIDS activism was stopped at the border and refused entry to the country. Admittedly, one of the things that happened to me immediately post-9/11 was that I had a miscarriage, and I’m not going to deny that my hormonal levels were all over the place. But it now seems like I wasn’t that far off the mark, either. In the end, I decided that I needed to keep doing what I was doing, but we did make sure to establish a clear guardian for the Bee, in case that became necessary.

I wonder, sometimes, what my kids’ memories of life in our house will be like. Both of my kids attended more rallies in utero than most people do in their lives. They’ve been to organizing meetings practically since birth. I’m not trying to make it seem like they’re having some tremendously abnormal experience–I think that most kids who grow up in a household where both parents work are gonna get taken to work once in a while–it’s just that most kids don’t go to meetings where half of the meeting is spent talking about how to organize your own precinct to defeat an incumbent city councilman or something.

I think the thing I liked most about this book was the snapshot of what my kids’ experience might be. The editors (both Red Diaper babies themselves) didn’t try to paint a one-sided portrait of what it was like to grow up in a politically unpopular household. They got stories from people who loved it, people who hated it, and most importantly, people who were indifferent to it.

It may sound odd for me to compare myself to a Communist–after all, I’m not being excluded from employment, or forced to name the names of my co-conspirators because of the work that I do or my political beliefs. It sometimes seems like a valid comparison to me though, because I think that the left in this country has come so far centerward, that now the work that LD and I do is in the vanguard, rather than the center-left.

I’m sorry to say that I lent my copy of Red Diapers to someone a few years ago, and I can no longer remember who that was. I’d like to be able to read it again, but I’d also like my kids to have a chance to read it when they’re older.

*(Note, I’m linking to this on Sunday, when you can read the whole article online for free–not sure how long that will last, it might be archived already by Monday.)


January 15, 2006. books for grown-ups.


  1. Comfort Addict replied:

    Nice post, Landismom. I’ll have to check out that book sometime (though not from my local library – ha ha).

    Having grown up as the son of a Jewish mother active in Democratic politics in the right-wing suburb of Detroit, I know a little about being a stranger in a strange land. I admired and was very influenced by my parents’ beliefs. Nevertheless, I hid them from my schoolmates (kind of like River Phoenix’ s character in “Running on Empty”). Thus, though I wouldn’t trade my childhood for another, there was a kind of covert aspect to it.

    I suspect that, when the Tater and the Bee look back on their childhood, they’ll smile and think about the adventures that they had that their friends didn’t. I hope that they also come to realize, as I did, how lucky they were to have the parents that they did.

  2. Kdubs replied:

    Hopefully, they’ll be blessed. We are passionate in our family and we hope our kids carry on one or two of our for whether it will be good or bad, I think a lot of that is up to you. If you force your kids to be seomething they are not or that they do not agree with they will rebel. if you give them the freedom to chose “your” side or not… then no matter how they feel it will be positive. Hope that makes sense. Press on! 🙂

  3. Kdubs replied:

    sorry for typos, child on lap lOL….

  4. MetroDad replied:

    Fascinating post, LM. Thanks for sharing. My utmost respect for you and the decision you make has grown to new levels. As always, you bring an interesting perspective to every discussion.

    P.S. I sadly stopped lending copies of books to friends because I too would forget who I lent them to. Now, when a friend shows interest in a book I have on my shelves, I write myself a note to buy them the book the next time their birthday rolls around. Is there anything sadder than trying to locate a favorite old book and not being able to find it?

  5. chichimama replied:

    I spent my childhood at political meetings and lived to tell the tale! I was even a poli-sci major.

    Regarding the book thing, a friend of my mom’s has a sheet of paper she keeps taped to the side of her bookcase that lists books that she’s loaned out. I’ve always meant to do it and never have, but it would solve the “where did I send that book” hysterias.

  6. Jim replied:

    My kids are all “red diaper babies” (X and I being confirmed socialists) and between the two households have attended more than their share of Pro-peace, anti-Bush, social justice, etc., rallies. My oldest has no qualms about displaying left-y pins and stickers and no problem arguing with right-y kids.

    I have the feeling our ranks are growing – by baby steps! 🙂

  7. Marigoldie replied:

    My boyfriend was raised by parents who actively fought for social justice, and he has turned out to be a hard-working activist himself. (I, on the other hand, was raised in a terribly conservative home, and it’s taken years to wriggle out of my family’s grip.) I think you’re doing your kids a great service.

    It’s a drag to lose a favorite book, but I try to tell myself that books and music were meant to be shared.

  8. newsucnuse replied:

    I read your miscarriage post and it was very moving and sad and beautifully said.

    I suffered two myself, and know the feeling of standing still in my own personal tragedy while the world moved on, but your description of how the rest of the world was also in mourning, too, and didn’t even notice you, really struck me.

    Thanks for sharing such a personal experience,.

  9. Library Lady replied:

    I’ve read about that book and I’m really going to have to get around to reading it. My mom probably wouldn’t have been considered a true “Red Diaper” baby, but she was raised in a community outside of NYC (Mohegan Colony) where just about everyone was either a socialist or a communist.

    Oh and BTW, since I’m a librarian, I lend out books for a living, and I would definitely recommend NOT loaning your own books out–except perhaps to your family. And only then if you really, REALLY trust them 🙂

  10. paul sheldon replied:

    Interesting, including comments. I’m not a red diaper baby, although my parents had friends who went to Soviet Russia and other friends who were German anti-Nazis. So I was aware of the issues. Then, on my own, I became a “Quaker pacifist revolutionary socialist.” I remember telling this to my Mom, who said “Oh no, you’ve become a Communist.” I replied “No, a Socialist, allied with the Socialist Labor Party.” Mom “Oh, that’s okay then.” Anyhow, the point of this post is coming from the parental position — how do we raise our children now when we hold unpopular or weird political/social views? How do we explain to our children at a demonstration that the police are looking at us as the problem, and are not there to help us? How do we reassure a child that we won’t get arrested and be taken away from them (I never was arrested until AFTER my children were grown)? My kids took it in stride and I am blessed to see how they are living their own lives. But being a parent/activist is something I thought about and I did my best to reassure them.

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