Race 2012: A Conversation about Race and Politics in America. Post #1: The Colored Drug Store

I am honored to be participating in a blogging project for the upcoming PBS documentary Race 2012: A Conversation About Race & Politics in America, airing Tuesday, October 16 (check local listings). The program takes a provocative look at race amidst the 2012 election and beyond.
(Click on the link above to “Like” the program on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.) Many thanks to my friend and fellow blogger, Monica Medina for inviting me!


Though I did an earlier post about President Obama, The Would-be-Master-of Compromise, which is now included on the Race 2012 site, the following is my first official contribution to this conversation.  I will be doing three posts, examining the idea of racial solidarity, how members of historically oppressed groups champion one another, how we feel when barriers start coming down, and this sentiment’s impact on the presidential election. The post below, entitled “The Colored Drugstore” begins with the grandmother I never met, and ends with the event of my voting for Barack Obama in 2008.  

“You be sure and go to the colored drug store, now,” my grandmother said, watching her boys head out the door, referring to the only drugstore in town run by a fellow African American.

Walgreens was close by and bigger, with more of a selection.  Still, my father and his brothers did as they were told.  Whatever their mother needed, no matter how urgently, it wouldn’t have mattered if the colored drug store was in the next county.   You patronized your own.  If a black man opened a business, that was where you took your business.  It was all about solidarity and survival.

The year was 1935.  The Great Depression was in full swing and you could bet there were plenty of white men down on their luck who’d have some choice words for a black man running his own business.  They might even have had some choice eggs to throw, if food hadn’t been so scarce.  As it was, there were threats, there were thugs with bats.  It took a brave black man to open a store.  Which was why, as far as my grandmother Albertina was concerned, it was the duty of every black consumer around to support him.  To shop at Walgreens was a slap in the face to your entire race.

There were no Jim Crow laws in Chicago like they had in the south.  My father attended an integrated public elementary school.  Later he was one of a handful of black students at a predominantly white high school, where no one especially objected to his presence, though all the black students had to have a niche, a way to stand out and prove themselves of value to the student body.  Dad was too small to make a name for himself on one of the sports teams as some of his friends did, but wound up using his wit and artistic talent as the chief cartoonist of the school paper.  Dad and the other black students looked out for one another, just as my grandmother looked out for the owner of the colored drugstore.

Though my father knew blacks who had been chased and beaten for “showing their color” in the wrong part of town—though my father had been chased more than once himself—he did not grow up separate from, hating, or even mistrusting whites in general.  But he had internalized the notion that your black brothers and sisters would have your back. You should have theirs too.  Just in case.

My father married my mother, a Jewish woman who shared his views, also a member of a culture where oppression had strengthened tribal bonds.  An anecdote:  sometime in the 1940s, my mother’s cousin came running into the house with a joke to tell his mother.

“Guess what?” He said, “A boy down the street just got run over by a steamroller, and they folded up his body and slid it under the door!”

His mother, my mother’s aunt, looked up from the stove, concerned about one thing: “Was he Jewish?”

The punch line was of course spoiled, but it hadn’t mattered to my great aunt.  What mattered was that no Jewish boy had been injured.

Group solidarity—members of an oppressed group supporting and championing one another—was not, is not, limited to blacks and Jews.  Women have it too.  We cheer when one of our number breaks through the glass ceiling, or otherwise gains acceptance into turf previously reserved for men.  My Latina friends cheered for Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court (well, I did too).  Every group has this sentiment to one degree or another.  People have a tendency to stand up for those like them, even if there are fundamental differences of opinion within the group.

For blacks, however, it is more complicated.  Attitudes toward blacks and blackness: black speech, black features, black culture, are often charged with a combination of fear, admiration and repulsion.  The stereotypes of black Americans as violent, dumb and lazy—perpetuated on television and film (though I believe this is improving)—are some of the most insidious around.   For most blacks, these stereotypes are fictions with no bearing on their lives.  Most blacks I know are proud of who they are, their group identification compatible with their sense of individuality.  But there are some young people who internalize the stereotypes in order to feel accepted, claiming that successful blacks are “acting white.”  So that when a black person succeeds, she risks claims that she has left her people behind.  This came up with the president in 2008; there were questions circling as to whether  Obama was ‘Black Enough.’ This is why many believe that it is important for successful blacks to remain connected to the community, to be a role model, and to acknowledge: I am one of you and one of you has made it to where I am. (More on this in a later post.)

“Breaking the color barrier” was a phrase I heard a lot while I was growing up, from my parents and their friends.  Jesse OwensJackie Robinson, Marian Anderson, Hattie McDanielPaul RobesonThurgood Marshall, Arthur Ashe.  Blacks who went where no black man or woman had gone before, adding color to their field, breaking ground for others.  Both my parents rooted for these black pioneers, hailing their presence on the world stage as game-changing.

My father, who died in 1995, never imagined that there would be a black president.

Once a year, on my father’s birthday, I have this ritual.  Late at night, by the light of a candle, I take out his picture, play his favorite music and I give him an update.  I tell him about my life, my family, but also the world.  I give him current events he’d be interested in.  I tell him things he’d get a huge kick out of.  Like his grandchildren.  Like the Williams Sisters (he played tennis himself).  Films and books he would have loved.  The fact that two of his friends—unlikely compadres because of their different backgrounds—met and became bosom buddies at Dad’s own shiva.  I talk about the adventures my mother has had since he’s been gone; the trips she’s taken, the friends she’s made. I tell him about the internet, all the things it allows us to do: from Google searches to blogging.  These things would amaze and amuse him if he were here to see them all.

On his birthday in 2008, I told him about Obama.  I said, there’s a black man running for president, Dad.  And I think he might win.  I got teary saying it aloud, imagining what Dad  would think if he could really hear me.

On election day itself, I waited to vote until both my kids were out of school so that I could bring them with me into the booth.  I wanted them to see me help make history.  And, as I pressed the red button (those big cranks were already a thing of the past), registering my vote for Obama, I thought of my dad and began to cry.  This made my children laugh; they still can’t understand the concept of crying when you are emotional and happy, not sad.  Finally, my son—then five—sobered up.

“I know why you’re crying,” he said.  “Because Barack Obama is brown like Grandpa Mel.”

I hugged him, hugged them both. “Well, something like that,” I said.

On Dad’s next birthday, in 2009, I said, Guess what Dad?  The president of the United States is a black man.

My father’s sense of solidarity would not have spared the President from Dad’s sharp political scrutiny, any more than my father’s pride in the accomplishments of black artists and musicians spared them his occasionally harsh artistic judgments.  But while Dad might have frowned in disagreement at some of the President’s choices, nodded in approval at others, the fact that Obama had broken the ultimate color barrier—well, that would have just made my father grin.

16 responses to “Race 2012: A Conversation about Race and Politics in America. Post #1: The Colored Drug Store

  1. Nice post, Lisa. I really enjoyed reading the ritual of you remembering your father once a year, it’s special, seems healthy for you and honoring of his memory. Also the way you personally communicated it to him helped convey the impact of Obama’s election win on the race story in the US – done in an individual way via your memoir, but you made it universal.

  2. Wonderful writing Lisa, I’m sure your dad would be very proud.

  3. Thanks, Gilly. I hope so!

  4. Wow, Lisa. You’re getting me all teary-eyed thinking of you talking to your father about Obama. I remember getting emotional myself the night of the 2008 election. Historic, milestone, one for the books. I could not have been happier. I was actually thinking, that night, how might MLK feel about this, or Harriet Tubman or George Washington Carver, for that matter. I’m hoping they were smiling, shining a collective light on our first African American president.

    Frankly, I seethe when I think of those who have said they’re determined to make him a one-term president. They’re in denial and living in the past. Obama is the future.

  5. You sum up the feeling so well: “…to acknowledge: I am one of you and one of you has made it to where I am.” I think it’s natural for people to feel that way. People naturally group ourselves, whether by skin color or gender, by sports teams, cities or states of origin, and we do cheer for “our own kind” to “make it.” Call me a dreamer, but I hope someday even MORE people in America will *notice* external differences in others, but consider them interesting, rather than something to be feared.

    Obama *must* be re-elected, hopefully with a strong Senate behind him. If so, he could go down in history as one of the greatest Presidents ever, of any color.

  6. Thank you Beverly. If you are a dreamer, I share that dream about the future. Ans I agree with your last sentence especially!

  7. Thank you, Lisa. You bring Mel back to life for me — his excitement, warmth, and commitment to justice and beauty.

  8. Nice post. I love how you communicate with your father. No one could imagine the following Obama receives and it does speak to our progress to have elected him. I do, however, see there is racial resentment that’s been boiling at the surface. Even during the 2oo8 election, Clinton called it a myth. We’re fortunate to be a part of this movement and still have obstacles to overcome. MLK is resting in peace a little better now, as his work laid ground for what we’ve witnessed.

  9. It’s a great ritual to remember your father.

    When I grew up in the 1960’s in Canada, I do remember MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As kid, my interest in civil rights history got fired up (along with personal incidents of racist behaviour from others), when reading about the Underground Railway….of which 25 yrs. later, I met a good friend who lives near the historic sight of Uncle Tom’s cabin in southern Ontario.

    Here in oil country, people like to think they are broad-minded. I think some are. But many people are afraid to speak out –quite different than Toronto or Vancouver. Yet, we are city of over 1 million people with Canada’s fastest growing population with more immigrants. Our city web site is only published in English….there is no attempt to publish city information in 1-2 other languages. The complicated situation is that our mayor is of East Indian descent, raised most of his life in Canada and is Muslim. And is Harvard educated. So everyone here in Calgary, likes to lull themselves our city is progressive because we elected someone who has a “different” non-white background. http://www.nenshi.ca/new/ He looks quite white and of course, doesn’t speak English with an accent…which makes him more palatable to a broad set of voters.

    Well aside from this digression, may the U.S. vote the best candidate. Hope Obama does well. When Romney dropped his 47% population comment in his behind the doors dinner, that revealed the ugliest side of who he truly is interested in favouring.

  10. Thanks for this Canadian view of the issue. I think many liberal Americans believe that everything is easier, more accepting in Canada. But it sounds like things are similar there, making progress haltingly. I hope the same for Obama, though things are quite tense here since the debate. Fingers and toes crossed!

  11. Your ritual is wonderful, me, I just talk to my father in my head all the time. Before Alzheimer’s took my dad entirely he followed the 2008 election season and he was determined to vote for that fine man. I thought first he meant McCain, my dad had been a fairly staunch Republican most of his life. I ignored him. But then we were watching a debate together and he said to me, that Obama is a smart man he knows what he is talking about.

    My chin hit my chest. My father Texan through and through had emerged from his upbringing over the years. He had fought his family about Civil Rights, he had accepted my choice in husband even encouraging me to marry him when I was in a dither and now, he was going to cast probably his last vote for that smart man Obama.

    It was indeed his last vote, but he cast it for Obama and he was proud of that vote. He was proud when Obama won also. My dad died 18 months later but I will always think of how far we have come because my dad cast the first Blue vote of his life for Obama.

  12. Val, I’m sorry it took me a while to respond to this, but your story of your father, his illness and his final vote for Obama left me in tears. Such an amazing and touching story. Thank you for sharing this with me.

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