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Editor’s Page

Even the Angels Wept

Obama and Me

No, I don’t know Barack Obama, never met him. So this is more about his effect on me – or perhaps the effect the symbol B.A. has on me.

Most people reading this aren’t old enough to have experienced the racism that gripped the United States before Martin Luther King and during his lifetime. Nor would they have heard of Malcolm X were it not for the film with Denzel Washington, still to be seen on TV. So I’d like to relate here some of the experiences of a white kid from Brooklyn

Everyone knows that the South was segregated, but Brooklyn was as well, and for all I know still is, although certainly not to the extreme of those days. The difference is that the South was segregated by law, whereas northern segregation was “merely” de facto, and blacks theoretically had equal rights. As a boy I lived in the Flatbush and, later, in the Flatlands neighborhoods, the former lower-middle-class, the latter middle-class. Obviously we had no mountains. Nor did we have blacks, as neighbors, that is; even our one Puerto Rican family was white. In the apartment houses on 22nd Street in Flatbush anonymous black men lived Monday through Friday in stifling tiny rooms in the cellars near the furnaces they tended. On Friday evening they went home to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section. Other weekend workers replaced them. One, however, brought his son with him during the week, who played and went to school with us. On weekends they also disappeared into mysterious Bed-Sty. Playing stickball and school is not social equality, however. He never came to our homes, nor did we to his. His father had taught him to “know his place”. We white kids didn’t even think about it. It’s just the way it was: normal.

My first personal contact with blacks was in public High School – Erasmus Hall, situated close enough to black neighborhoods to allow a few black kids to filter through. Of 6,000 students, I’d guess that about two per cent were black – one being the basketball team star. I knew one or two sufficiently well to eat sandwich lunch with them on the street during lunch hour. But generally they stuck to themselves and we never saw them after school. That they would be invited to a social event – or would go if invited – was unthinkable, therefore we didn’t think about it. Of course they didn’t invite us either.            

My parents and other relatives of that generation were all racists – or, if you prefer, prejudiced, for they would never think of lynching anybody. I didn’t realize it until the MLK phenomenon, when race suddenly became a topic of conversation. I was in my twenties then, returned from military service in Germany with my German wife. On the ship coming back our waiter was a black guy, let’s call him Bill. Don’t worry, I wasn’t an officer, but even sergeants, if married, had private rooms and ate in a dining room served by waiters We – especially my wife – got on famously with Bill, who was funny and talkative. He also lived in Brooklyn, so on the last day we exchanged addresses and phone numbers, something one often does without any serious intentions.

For the first few months we lived with my parents in Flatlands. One day when I was out, my wife decided to walk around and see Brooklyn. When I got home that evening my mother told me she had called and left a number for me to call. It was Bill’s number.  She had a map, checked out Bill’s address and walked – all the way the Bed-Sty. I drove there to pick her up. It was what we’d call the middle class area of Bed-Sty. They lived in a nice one-family house. Bill’s wife was a teacher. We had a couple of drinks, talked, laughed, etc. Then my wife invited them to our house, which of course wasn’t our house. I knew my parent’s attitude about race and was somewhat uneasy, but then thought it would do them good and perhaps help them get over their prejudices.

But it didn’t work out that way. When I told my mother we had invited a guy we met on the ship, she said “How nice!” But when I told her they were black (Negroes then), her face dropped: “I don’t know what your father will say.” She knew very well though. When the hour approached next Saturday afternoon, they put on their coats and hats and said they were going to the Parkville, a bar they frequented. “I can’t believe this.” I growled. “Well you better believe it,” my father growled back. I must say, though, that when they got older they changed – not radically – but they did change. I’m sure that twenty years later they wouldn’t have done that.

We eventually moved out and to Hollis in Queens. A semi-detached, one-story apartment in a residential neighborhood. It was convenient for my work at LaGuardia Airport.  Even for those days the rent was ridiculously cheap and I asked the realty agent why. She hesitated long enough to make me wonder if Hollis was susceptible to earthquakes. Finally she informed us that the neighborhood was changing. “Jacky Robinson lives a few blocks away, you know.” I didn’t know, but wow! – maybe I’d get to know him. Negroes were moving into the neighborhood, she told us, and the whites were moving out, so it was very difficult to rent there at prices they used to charge.

Our block was still predominantly white, but our next door neighbors were black – a middle aged woman, Rose, her two small children and her much older brother, Uncle Sol. Sol was a real nice guy and a good chess partner, i.e., not good enough to beat me all the time. He was also a member of the Nation of Islam, at that time a popular movement among African-Americans, which preached the superiority of blacks and the need for the separation of the races. It’s most famous exponent was Malcolm X. I had often seen the so called Black Muslims at the airport, the women in white ankle-length gowns, the men immaculately dressed in suits. Uncle Sol gave me the literature to read and I just nodded, not wanting to offend him. His sister Rose just shrugged and winked at me. One of her kids was my daughter’s age, two, and they became play pals.

One day another black neighbor came to our place and said he was disturbed about the white people moving away, that the black neighbors didn’t want Hollis to become a black ghetto, something they had recently escaped from. His goal was to convince us to stay. I told him we weren’t going anywhere. But the time we did leave, less than a year later when I was transferred to Argentina, we were the only white family left on the block. I considered going to that guy to explain that we weren’t running away…but didn’t.

I also had an enlightening experience previously, when I drove by car from The Army Language School in Monterey, California to the East Coast via the southern route together with my best friend (black) at the School,  and another guy – a naturalized German Jewish sergeant. What a trio! We had to go through the south because of winter snow storms in the north. We experienced Jim Crow (segregation) at its most depressing – much more for Jim  than us whiteys of course, but it affected us all. Segregated rest rooms and water fountains at gas stations, restaurants where the Sgt. and I brought our meals out to the car because Jim couldn’t enter. Broken down hotels in broken black city neighborhoods where we had to drop Jim off before going to motels awash with southern hospitality. Jim gave me his money after checking in and paying in advance.

When I left the United States in 1957, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d predicted that I’d never return to live. But that’s what happened – not by conscious choice, but because my company posted me in various countries, but never my own. So I missed the train of desegregation and the heroic efforts of those – black and white – who accomplished it. Of course I followed it from afar.

Now with the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency, “I never thought I’d live to see the day…” has rapidly become a cliché. Nevertheless it’s also true for me. And another thing: During that rally in Chicago when people were shown on TV crying, most notably Jesse Jackson and Oprah, and the day after, when Colin Powell, a mild macho, said he cried when he heard that Obama had won, I suppose it’s okay for me to admit it as well.

Maybe even the angels wept.

Obama and the World

That’s my “race card”. But I don’t want to leave the impression that it’s the only thing that moves me to write this. It’s also Barack Obama the man, or at least his promise. I quote from a letter to the editor in today’s local provincial newspaper. (Argentine newspapers and magazines have been full of Obama since the election.) *

After giving his opinion that Latin America will not be high on Obama’s agenda because of more pressing problems, the writer says:

“…The important thing about Obama – for us – is that he will place the United States on another level of acceptance and respect in the rest of the world; he will change arrogance to diplomacy; he will give capital a more human face; he will understand that by creating work for his country’s poor and collaborating to create it for the rest of the world, he will achieve peace for all, and will make his country’s immense power help pacify the Middle East.

"I also think that he will insure that a new Vietnam will not happen, nor a new Iraq and that those in Afghanistan who embrace ideologies and creeds understand that something has changed in the world since November 4th, and that all the global communities have a sublime mission to insure that wellbeing is applied to all the inhabitants of this planet.

"Why do I think that we are close to this magnificent possibility? Because Barack Obama, in addition to the strength of youth and his undeniable capacity to communicate with the people, also demonstrates a capacity for tolerance and equilibrium, which will enable him to relate, listen and be heard by all his political equals of the world, whether of the right or the left.

"Because, on the other hand, the world is hoping that dialog with the White House be through a person without extreme ideologies, and that this person understands that capitalism and socialism need and complement each other; a young democrat like Obama is the indicated person.

"If this happens, and I am convinced that it will, Argentina, Latin America and the world will become better every day.” (signed) Rubén Carlos Amadio (my translation)

All that is a tall order and I wish I could be as optimistic as Sr. Amadio. But it does give an indication of what the rest of the world is hoping from the new president.

Frank Thomas Smith                        

* “La Voz del Interior”, Córdoba, Argentina Nov. 14, 2008


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