Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thinking about the future

The macro social and political upheavals of the 1960s had already sent fissures along the micro Lavette, McAllister and Pavone street communities of America when my mother saw the Hatten family walking toward Columbus School for a PTA meeting.

The Hattens represented what was changing about Benton Harbor, Michigan. Sure, they had the same upwardly mobile spirit that had driven people a generation earlier from Benton Harbor’s low-lying, low-income Flats neighborhood to the highlands a half-mile away.

This was before the heavy industry economy collapsed, and the Hattens must have foreseen a bright middle-class future ahead that was based on hard foundry work or, if lucky, an assembly job at the Whirlpool appliance factory. They had earned a ticket out.

But the Hattens were different. They were black.

I don’t remember if my mother knew the family at that point. If she had, she probably felt some community bond with them. Their Lavette Street home, between the very American-sounding street names of Clay and Harrison, was just two blocks over from where my parents, two older sisters and older brother had moved just before I was born in 1965.

Our unspectacular but sturdily built frame house in the 700 block of Pavone Street dated from the 1910s. It was where my mother largely was raised by my great-grandmother as my widowed grandmother worked. My great-grandparents had lived there since probably 1919, themselves moving from Lavette Street.

Whether my mother knew the Hattens before that day, I guess, doesn’t really matter. What she saw was a family – one of the growing numbers of proud black families moving in as whites fled to suburbia – dressed in their Sunday best and voting to take part in their children’s education.

It was the American dream realized.

Except they were turned away at the door. No blacks allowed.

That was some 40 years ago, and though I regret never talking in depth with my mother about how it shaped her, I believe it was that moment that she committed to no longer standing on the sidelines.

She may have felt guilty for not standing up for the Hattens that day. I don’t know. But what bubbled out of that experience -- like a cauldron fueled by what her Congregationalist upbringing –-- was the belief that God didn’t mean for a black family to be turned away from a PTA meeting because of the color of their skin.

I’m reminded of the story for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is Barack Obama’s upcoming inauguration as president of these United States.

A black man. President.

I wonder what the Hattens would think.

But Obama’s inauguration is not the mountaintop. Instead, I would argue, an Obama presidency is the precipice.
We, as Americans, can forge a new era in our history. By reaching out and sacrificing –- splicing and reconfiguring the best parts of our cultural DNA –- we can create a new America. Or we can succumb to the worst that the past eight years has laid at our door.

Obama did not get to this point without the helping hands of many people -- black, white, Hispanic, Asian and otherwise. At the same time, his speeches, writings and potential policies leave me with a sense that he is a man who has searched his past -- even angered by it -- to find out who he is today and who he could be tomorrow.

It is who we ALL could be tomorrow. It is the hope of Barack Obama's presidency and the legacy I hope it/my generation leaves. Maybe then the Hatten families of this world will be invited through the school door.

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