August 2008 Archives

Obama and McCain have another issue to spar over: affirmative action, that old liberal chestnut and conservative bugbear dealing with access, opportunity, standards, merit, values, historic racism and present-day opportunity, or the lack thereof. No one blog can capture all the fun stuff in this debate, so I want to start from a different angle. It’s a college story about the time a group of us guys got invited to meet a bunch of alumni at the Union Club here in NYC. There were about fifty of us, all class officers and fraternity presidents and team captains. Oh yeah! We weren’t just all white, we were mostly Protestants, with a few Catholics, too. You know, people who already knew how to use all that silverware without having to ask.

Senator Obama can’t win sometimes. First he gets lambasted by seven Black revolutionaries calling him a sell-out for not advancing the Black liberational cause. Moving through the week, he goes from complicit Uncle Tom in Florida to stoker of the racial fires in rural Missouri. Why? He reminded folks that some don’t like him because he doesn’t resemble “all those presidents on dollar bills.”

Now there’s a racial zinger for you! Personally, I thought he was talking about all those fright wigs that pass for hair on those old guys, but McCain’s fiery reaction and ensuing press commentary about the racial genie being out of the bottle sent me to thinking again, back to my then almost lily-white hometown of Groton, Connecticut. As a kid, I never knew a genie and never saw that kind of bottle. And yet…

“That Name”

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I was recently at my birth home in Apalachicola Florida soaking up sun, enjoying seafood and wonderful long visits with family and friends. Because of Florida’s longstanding relationship to disturbances in the Gulf of Mexico – hurricanes – we decided to have the trees on the property pruned back from the house. For this task we hired Joey and John’s Tree Service.

My family moved to Apalachicola in the early 20th Century from Alabama and Georgia. They came to this part of Florida because of a lumber company that was cutting dead head cypress along the Apalachicola River. My mother’s father was a river boat pilot and my dad came along with his brothers to work in the lumber yard. My parents met and married in 1926 and I am the last of their nine children.

The house that we had the trees pruned back from has a relationship to the lumber business that brought my parents to Florida. When my parents purchased the land for their home in 1947 they did not have much money left to buy materials to build a house. It just happened that the lumber company was giving away old houses that had been used as camps for the men who cut the cypress along the river and one of the houses became my family’s starter home. The core of this existing house is that old camp from “up the river.”

Watching CNN’s Soledad O’Brien’s show on “Black in America” and the segment on the Rand family made me pause as I realized one of those “hiding in plain sight” realities of white American life: large gatherings of all our kin don’t happen very much anymore, if they ever did. If my extended family’s any guide, we know our genealogy ( all the way back to the Pilgrims on our mother’s side and New Amsterdam Dutch on my father’s ) better than we know each other.

The Rand’s, 300 hundred strong, get together every two years with family cheers, bar b-q cook-offs, and buses arriving from around the U.S.; t-shirts sing it loud and sing it proud. On my Burghardt side, we’ve got half a family tree on eight feet of graph paper sitting on a shelf in the shed. On my mother’s side, the Robinsons, there are a couple of pictures of an old guy with a hell of a beard. He’s not cheering in any of them.

Speaking Our Truths

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Senator Obama’s talk on M.I.A. and AWOL Black Fathers delivered at a Chicago Church on Father’s Day lacks the informed analysis that I expect of him if he is win the vote of this African American father for President of the United States.

The absence of some black fathers from the lives of their children is owing to many reasons far too complex to cover in this space. I would like Mr. Obama to take the time to understand this complexity and not paint all black men with the same brush. Furthermore, I ask him to please share with the citizenry what he considers a father’s responsibilities. Surely there are many constructions of what is considered responsible father behavior.

Riding on a crowded Lexington Avenue Subway right before Obama’s overseas trip, I overheard the two middle-aged black guys standing next to me, their leather briefcases tucked between their suit pants on the train floor as they rode uptown.

“Man, Barack better be careful over there! One misstep and McCain’ll be all over him like white on rice,” the taller one said.

“You know they’re just waiting for that. He says one thing wrong, it’ll be back to why Black people better stick to domestic issues. Can’t handle those foreign countries,” the shorter one with the purple silk tie replied.

“Yeah, you know how it is. Obama mess up once, then it’s all about what we can’t do in the first place…You just gotta’ worry for the brother…”

A big-eared Black guy, wearing Muslim robes, fist pumping his hot-looking mama complete with ‘Fro wig and matching designer machine gun. Oh, my. Whole lotta’ shaking’ goin’ on out there; every hue a finger can have being pointed this way and that. Maybe the fingers are pointing the wrong way.

I remember my first exposure to satire back at Fitch High School in Groton, Conn. I was a sophomore then, newly full of hormones and covered with zits, a quaking mass of biological confusion trying to pass for cool. My English teacher that year was Johnny Kelly, a skinny, short guy with a sweet smile who’d won something called the Boston Marathon a couple of years earlier. He taught from a huge “Reader of English Literature” we were all supposed to be reading from. The early stuff from Cotton Mather was as dry as week-old hay; the only thing bearable about Samuel Pepys was his name, which scored him 100 points over Thomas Hardy and those other dead English guys, all of whom wrote like they were on laudanum, whatever that was.

Thank God for Jonathon Swift! I remember turning to his essay “A Modest Proposal,” written at the height of the Irish potato famine, assuming it to be as dreadful as chapters from Hardy’s books about wheat fields. As I still read texts as literal facts strung together, some done terribly (Hardy), some much better (Mickey Spillane), my eyes popped when I got to his recommendation that Irish parents sell their kids to be eaten as tasty, rich morsels for aristocrats. Come again? To be eaten? With a fork? How could anybody mean that…

VII: Fathers & Sons

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So Jesse Jackson wants to cut Barack Obama’s nuts off. Geez, Jesse what was in your coffee that morning you went on Fox News, of all places, and spilled what was truly in your heart? No matter. Deed’s done. That an elder would unleash such Lear-like hostility at one younger, who is deemed on the way up, got me to thinking once again about fathers and sons.

A chapter in the compelling story of the American Dream has always centered on the image of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, passing on their lessons from one generation to the next, openly proud of their off springs’ achievements, quietly hopeful that they keep moving up the ladder of success beyond the rung at which they have landed.

Maybe that chapter needs a re-write. My father, never quite as comfortable with words as Jackson, focused on actions. Even at ten, I could hold a stage the way my father never could, being chosen to M.C. local Grange events for talent shows and parties. As verbally quick as he was tongue-tied, I drew my mother’s attention whenever chosen to star in a Christmas play or if I won a spelling bee.

Enough to make a father proud?

There’s a lot of understandable attention in child welfare right now about racial disproportionality. Black kids are way overrepresented in the system compared to their actual numbers in the general population. In comparison, Latino kids are pretty proportionate, and Asian-American and White American kids underrepresented.

There’s been a lot of ink (or at least a lot of fonts) written about what brought this about, ranging from historical themes related to the Black family and slavery, the dynamics of race and poverty, and institutionalized forms of racism attributed to child welfare gatekeepers. Most of what I’ve read makes sense in understanding the causes of the problem, but they don’t address how to change it very much, other than create work groups to address the issue. Since work groups tend to read a lot, I thought I’d write about one of my best friends as a kid, a boy named Ross “Butch” Pettis.

Growing up a popular kid in a small town had its advantages. I didn’t like going home all that much, and there were always friends to drop in on: down the block or across backyards in elementary school, hitching to see junior high buddies who lived down at the beach, or driving that old lima green ’48 Pontiac with Hyrdomatic transmission over to those fancy houses in Mystic once high school hit.

Being an all-but lily white, small New England town, doors were always open, and a brief knock followed by a squeaky hinge and a friendly hello was all I needed to enter my friends’ homes. Nobody worried about outsiders or the omnipresent “them” as a potential threat to our tree-lined serenity. From my blinkered eyes, the town’s expressed notion of “difference” had nothing to do with race or ethnicity or religion (except for my father, who feared Papist threats the way Howard Hughes feared germs) but “townies” vs “Navy brats.” Groton was the home of the nation’s largest submarine base, so new kids showed up in our classes every year or so, some staying for less than two years, others—the lucky ones, I figured—for five or more as their fathers headed into retirement. Being a townie, I didn’t visit them too often, except for the cool ones who, through athletic skill or looks or some remarkable capacity for effortlessly fitting in, got to be as popular as the rest of my crowd.

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Archive of entries from August 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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