There are many people in America who are angry and frightened and want their country to be as it used to be when they felt that life was simpler and more peaceful. If you are among those people who remember those times, I’m with you, because the fifties were my growing up years, too.
I love my country for what it stands for and for what it strives to be, so let’s take a look at our America back when we were young, and safe and at peace. Oh, and by the way, I’m Caucasian. Oh, you, too? And we were lower-middle class, moving slowly upward to middle-middle, and not very aware that we were living on top of a soup pot, living on the lid of that pot, and that the soup was becoming very hot, but we didn’t feel it yet, maybe just a tremor now and then. Let’s examine that soup.
Gays were generally hated and you could beat up a homosexual and probably get away with it, and being found-out as a gay man often meant ruin and shame. Usually, back then, a man could beat his wife and not be punished. Also, an accusation of rape often saw the man walk away and the woman suspected. Black kids could not swim in many town pools. What signal does that send to a child? Same with bathrooms and water fountains for blacks, and I’m not just talking about the South.
In little Round Lake, Illinois, where I grew up, if a black family was motoring out of Chicago and wanting to enjoy the lake region, maybe have a picnic, our town cops would tell them, sorry, this is only for residents (not true of course). The black parents would say to their kids no, we can’t stop here. And the kids would ask why? This takes a long time to heal, but it must if we still believe in our country.
One of my summer jobs in college was factory work. Mostly whites were hired, Mexicans tolerated. On a break a woman was complaining about Blacks walking by her home while she and her daughter were in their yard wearing shorts. The Blacks did not do anything or say anything, but she was bitching, and when somebody disagreed with her she said, “We’re better than they are, and that’s that!” She somehow needed that power, the power over somebody. Anybody.
Jews were also discriminated against in America then, in a quieter and less obvious prejudice; it wasn’t just about color.
Before we moved out of Chicago, we lived in a tough neighborhood where my father was half owner of a tavern. There was an incident in the bar one night, a fight, and my Dad had stopped it and taken a knife away from one of the men. My father was not much of a talker, but I remember this moment from when I was only six or so, my father explaining to my mother and brother and me: “Some people don’t like the Blacks, but…” I remember him shaking his head in deep thought. “But, ya know…people are people.”
What a statement. Thanks, Dad. In his quiet way he was telling us that people should be taken for who and what they are – as people, individual people. Race and ethnicity and nationality and religion and gender and sexual identification, should not count, not at all.
In the sixties the lid on that pot was steaming, and we could feel the steam coming out. People were challenging prejudice in its many forms. It was a chaotic time, but headway was made. This country became more fair, but of course, it didn’t solve everything .
Now the lid has come all the way off, and again, to some people it feels like chaos, but we got through it before and we’ll get through it now, because we have to. Because that’s the promise of this country: liberty and justice for…whom? For all. All.
The world is moving in this direction. We found out recently that in one Middle Eastern country, the women there were finally granted the right to drive. Cheers. Yes, and in Round Lake, Illinois today, just let a cop try to block somebody’s picnic because of race. That doesn’t work any more. And gay people are finally, in the minds of millions, just people.
We’ve seen the new President of our country try to move us backwards. He wanted to discredit homosexuals all over again and have them pulled out of our armed forces. Luckily the military said no way. These are soldiers, and the only way to judge them is by the yardstick of soldiering. This president has promised his voters that he will take us back to…what? A country that only says its people are free and equal, but hides the truth?
So what I’m saying to all the worried, angry, upset Americans of my generation is this: we can’t go back. Because back then there was just too much ugliness that was hidden, tamped down and swept away, out of sight to many of us. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t what America promises.
What we have to do now is to learn to take people, not in bunches, but one by one. That’s all we need to do, to remember that each of us is an entity, a person, and no label can say who we are. We’re not bad or good based on race, religion, nationality…based on anything but our personal self. It’s how each one of us behaves in the world that’s important. That’s it. Each one of us. Each day.