Black Man

April 11, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Auto-Biography

I was raised in Glencoe, Illinois, in the 50s and 60s.  Perhaps half of the students in my grammar school classes were Jewish, the rest Protestant and Catholic.  My father was “agnostic” though not a deep thinker on the subject.  My mom was vaguely religious.  We lit Hanukkah candles every second or third year, attending her stepfather’s Passover some years.  Every year we celebrated Christmas with a tree, opening presents on the 25th.

The Jewish population of Chicago’s northern suburbs had not yet polarized in favor of reflexive support of Israel.  The 1967 war had not yet happened.  There was a sadness associated with the occupation of Palestine.  The grief around WWII was still in people’s minds.  Among my family and friends, no one talked of Israel except the old folks.  They did not talk of it often.  My family on both sides was deeply Americanized.  I wasn’t aware of which of my friends were Jewish and which weren’t.  Glencoe in the 50s and early 60s was about making money and buying stuff.

My father’s parents lived about four blocks from us on the street across from Lake Michigan.  Both my parents were raised with live-in help, usually African Americans, sometimes Eastern Europeans.  I was raised in a smaller house than those my parents were raised in, but my parents felt compelled to either have live-in assistance (folks that cooked and cleaned) or Southsiders that would come in for the day.  When my mother grew mentally ill and was institutionalized, this occurred almost half my years between 10 and 18, a nonstop succession of black and Eastern European women came into my life.

So, I came across folks from several European countries and many African Americans by my having close contact with them at my two grandparents’ houses and the house that I grew up in.  My father’s mother’s behavior toward the help was over-the-top inappropriately verbally abusive.  My sisters and I polarized in the opposite direction, treating almost all the visitors from outside our suburban world with temerity and respect.  A parade of people from the Caribbean, Europe and Chicago’s South Side came in and out of the three houses.  We were exposed to countless dialects, unique cuisines and attitudes toward children.

Over the years, black people began to populate my dreams.  Usually they did not speak.  They were often there to experience and suffer the confusion and violations that characterized my dream world, accompanying me through these experiences.  Whereas most of the white women in my real world felt frightening and threatening, in dream the black women and men were silent partners in my distress.

Black felt and feels familiar.

On the Fourth of July in 2004 the politicians and their assistants assembled in the Highland Park parking lot in preparation for the big parade.  This was about three blocks from where I lived the first five years of my life.  My job was to pass out stickers to children for Lee Goodman, who was running for Congress.  We would be following Barack Obama by about 20 feet.  Standing around the parking lot for maybe 40 minutes, I stood and observed Obama as folks walked up one by one to say a word.  Mostly he stood there by himself.  Occasionally he’d watch me watching him.  I sought to get a feel for who he was by watching the way he talked and acted.  It seemed he would be our senator in four months.  He had not yet given the convention speech.  There was no talk of the presidency.

I was neither impressed nor not impressed.  I was just struck by the fact that he was not acting like a politician.  He seemed relaxed.  No fake smiles.

Now that he is president, I feel that the familiar has entered into my life from a direction I would least expect.  Emerging from my childhood, from my dreams, from my brief contact with a man that felt present and unaffected, is a black man that represents what people seek.  As a Leftist organizer, I reflexively note the many incongruities between his words and his behaviors.  As a child of the suburbs raised by black women, with a stepson that is black, with dreams populated by black people that understand with wisdom the difficulties of life, I am deeply relieved that Obama is president.  When I see him on the screen, I feel blessed that this man from deep within me has manifested in the real world.

I continue to be astonished that he is president.  For me, he is dream come true.


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