Friday, April 04, 2008

Forty Years

I was raised in a casually racist family, no better or worse I suppose than the typical family in Roselle Park NJ. Which is to say it wasn't the consuming matter it was where Jim Crow laws existed & were being challenged. Roselle Park stayed white because the handful of real estate agencies handling property sales in the town didn't sell to black people, & only occasionally would an apartment owner rent to blacks. So a kid in Roselle Park could grow up without personally knowing any African-Americans if we didn't want to know any. Black parents weren't interested in integrating Roselle Park schools. Public education in Roselle Park at the time was no better than in Rahway, Roselle, Linden & Union, which were integrated. Roselle Park was not a wealthy town. It was just white. I didn't even think about this until I was teenager. Then, although I understood nothing about "logic," de facto segregation began to look very illogical.

Although the process started earlier, the watershed for me was the televised 1965 Selma marches, particularly "Bloody Sunday." That's when I really understood, in a graphically local way, what was required to enforce segregation. If civil rights demonstrators wanted to march from Roselle town Hall to Roselle Park town hall, a distance of about four blocks, would we use tear gas, bull whips, fire hoses, billy clubs, & vicious dogs to keep them out? Was my family willing to stand on the side of the street shouting racist insults at the marchers? Of course not. We used more subtle "Yankee" methods. We had conspiratorial real estate agents, creepy police patrols, a convenient railroad track, & the practice of shunning to maintain the separation. We bent a little to give an illusion of flexibility. We didn't have to fight. We were more cowardly than violent southern rednecks.

& then there were Cassius Clay, Willie Mays, Motown, Bill Cosby, the Rolling Stones playing R & B, the jazz records on a shelf in my oldest brother's room. Tony Bennett, a favorite in my home, went to Alabama to lend support. It didn't make sense to love the culture & hate the people who created the culture. It didn't make sense. I mulled this over quietly, sometimes with friends, rarely with family. Among my friends, the times were a'changin'. We generally agreed. & we weren't Peter, Paul & Mary folkie fans. We had no interest in Bob Dylan until he plugged in his guitar. We were just teenagers.

Within a year after Selma, I'd crossed over. I still didn't know any black people. But I ventured to write a pro civil rights editorial for the school newspaper. It was the tightest, most deliberate piece of writing I'd ever done, & I even let the journalism teacher correct my grammar. I knew I was almost riding the caboose on the train. Almost. To my amazement, the editorial won First Prize in the Jersey Scholastic Press Association competition, a very big deal when you beat out rich kids from the private schools who fantasized winning Pulitzers after they graduated Ivy League. I suspect my editorial (which I may not have anymore) packed some metaphoric insight into few words. Overnight, I became a minor celeb in my high school. I was rewarded just for saying the right thing. But that right thing hadn't been said much around Roselle Park. I was not crowned with a laurel wreath by my parents for saying it - they were distracted by their own problems anyway. However, a very attractive, hip girl began stalking me - so unexpected that it took awhile for me to notice her lurking around.

My route to a change-of-heart would have pleased Dr. King. It was, I think, the cumulative effect he intended to have on sheltered white kids like me. He would have appreciated that it helped get me the pretty girl, too.

This isn't a "Glory Days" tale. I've had plenty of greater thrills since high school, & the prize editorial was uncharacteristic of my future writing. I know I wasn't really a "liberal." But the processes that led up to it were apparent to me even when I wrote it. It wasn't a "political" consciousness-raising. Politics are the caboose on the train. If you get a "new" idea from a politician, you are very late indeed. Politicians themselves are laggards because they pay so little attention to culture. It matters that Obama cares what's on his iPod.

Political culture - & by that I mean not only politicians but also CNN, MSNBC, Fox, talking head opinionators - often borders on imbecilic. We know what they're going to say before they even say it. Keith Olbermann is no source of revelatory thought; he's a sportscaster with a brain. Liberal bloggers post his videos because he expresses what they already think & saves them the effort of writing it.

Obama's magic appeal to many of his followers is that he comes across as an apotheosis of the Sixties, as if he completely internalized that era; indeed, as if he had been born of it. Which he was. & moved on as he grew up through the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties. What Dr. King spoke of as "dreams" are embodied in Obama's physical & intellectual makeup. Those long ago dreams are no longer even debatable matters. The moral aspects are settled. They are simply overdue as practical economic justice & rights - the place Dr. King arrived at before he was killed, & in my opinion was why he was killed. This alone makes Obama preferable to Hillary Clinton, whose psyche is a divisive Sixties battleground. That she found her way from Goldwater Girl to positions of some liberality makes her journey a common one for her - my - generation, & it was a tougher road to travel for the average white southerner than for privileged northerners. Forget about John McCain - he's pre-rock & roll, hardly imaginable in a contemporary presidential candidate. Every time McCain speaks he reminds us that he's clueless. He spent 5 nightmare years in a North Vietnamese cage, but he's been culturally imprisoned by choice his entire life, by the conservatism of military culture & the isolation of Washington politics.

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As you already know, I grew up in a show business family, hence, integration was a natural aspect of understanding to me, at a very early age. My family was crucial to the Inter-Faith Counsel's movement to integrate Burbank where we were successful in getting the first black a rental unit. We caused a lot of consternation in our neighborhood because of all the black musicians coming in and out of the house (we had a recording studio in the back part of the house), and I remember dozens of times being the only white girl in a car full of blacks (didn't matter if they were a family with kids, ladies, or just guys) and being pulled over by the police and hassled. To my deepest core of my soul, it astounded me that people actually hated someone because of the color of their skin. I have never in my life been able to grasp the concept. I know it exists, and I see it expressed, but I cannot for the life of me find a place inside myself that understands why. I dated black men, but I also dated Mexicans, Asians, Persians, etc. I was probably not very ethnically challenged!

Having both Dr. King and Robert Kennedy assassinated within months of each other was devastating to me at the time (only to be surpassed by the 1970 Kent State shootings -- which to this day stand out as the most significant point of remembrance, even more so than when JFK was assassinated in 1963), and there was a deep sense of despair. In many ways, I have that same sense of dread and despair today. It's as if it's come back, but not in an overt black/white way, but in an ideological right wing/left wing way. Not to mention we are 40 years later again in a pointless war, gotten into by leaders of our country lying their asses off as to why we should be there.

I haven't given a shit about an election since it became clear that (1) the republicans had figured out a way to steal them (think Diebold, et al.) and (2) there was even remotely a candidate in any election, local, state or national, that truly represented my values in any way, shape or form. Until now. When Obama was first elected, and his first votes in the Senate were not of the caliber I had hoped for, I felt like he was not living up to the dynamics he exhibited when he spoke. With the choices available today, Obama, Clinton or McCain, I'm really starting to dig the Obama vibe. It has been a long time since someone campaigned with such an ardent sense of the present -- Bobby Kennedy comes to mind. What a tribute to the process Dr. King helped move along so famously if this country were to elect a black president.

Just my thoughts for today.
Good thoughts they are today. I wish Obama channeled John Edwards on specific issues. But I'm certain he will fill his adminstration with very smart people, & take counsel of some very wise ones.

Jazz history of course is filled with tragic ironies, not the least of which were that great musicians weren't permitted to perform together in public, & great black artists played in white-only clubs where they couldn't even get a drink at the bar.
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