Category Archives: Our American Stories

Our Stories Make America Truly Great

 

If you voted for Donald Trump, we have our differences. I did not support your candidate; you did not support mine. But I do not hate you. I cannot hate you, because I don’t know your story. I’d be lying if I denied I was judging you, but my judgment is rooted in my own life’s narrative.

By the same token, if you judge me by my gender, by my speech—unmistakably Northeastern, liberal, educated—or by the brown of my skin, your judgment comes from within you. Any assumptions you make about me stem from the fact that you do not know my story, the story of my parents, the stories of my grandparents, any better than I know yours.

As a psychotherapist, as a writer, as a parent, I believe stories are the most important element of the human condition. We each come with our own and that is the magic of being human. Sharing our stories—trusting one another, listening with our whole hearts—this is also the key to reconciliation.

An acquaintance of my mother’s, who—like my mother herself—is white and Jewish, had a childhood marked by loss, struggle and misery. She and her sisters lost their parents early and grew up in an orphanage. Through enormous sacrifice, work, as well as the grace of strangers, neighbors and government programs, she and her sisters were able to get their education, including advanced degrees, find meaningful work, and in her case, a marriage that lifted her out of the middle class into affluence. Now in her late seventies, this woman owns her own Manhattan apartment, loaded with beloved books—stories, which include her own European and American history.

Several years ago, my mother shared with this woman a story—just one—about my father, whom she had already outlived.

Dad was an artist from early childhood. As a high school student, unable to make his mark as an athlete, as the other four black students in his otherwise white high school had done, my father gained fame among his peers as chief cartoonist for the school newspaper. He went on to receive an MFA from the Chicago Art Institute, studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and ultimately, was offered a job at a large, “Mad Men” style advertising agency in Manhattan. The date was 1964—smack in the middle of the famed television show’s timeline.

As I said, my father was offered a job at this agency. Dad was highly qualified in terms of education, experience and talent. He was also stylish, a trend-setter, who would probably have fit in well with Roger Sterling, Don Draper and their set. He was offered the job on a Wednesday, to start the following Monday.

There was a problem, however. The CEO—the big cheese, the head honcho—of this firm had been away on a business trip while the offer was being made. The subordinates had, of course, discussed my father’s candidacy with their boss over the phone, gone over Dad’s resume, raved about his qualities and exacted the director’s enthusiastic OK before offering Dad the job. The only thing they neglected to share with their boss was my father’s race. That was a detail the subordinates knew would be disqualifying, so they figured they wouldn’t mention it until Monday, when my father shook the hand of his new boss, who was, they thought, too much of a gentleman to reject him face to face. My father’s work would then speak for himself.

If you ever watched Mad Men, as I did religiously, you will remember the premiere episode of season five, where Sterling Cooper—an exclusively white agency—put out a mock ad seeking to hire blacks. While the waiting room filled with people of color, partners Roger, Don and Burt cowered inside, trying to figure out how they were going to get around this hurdle, without compromising the Old-Boy-scotch-at-ten am-sex-with-a-secretary-at-three  culture of theirs. In the end, they hired a single African American woman, Dawn, who became Don’s secretary.

And what of my father and his shot at Mad-manhood? Someone—no one knows who—squealed. Whoever it was got a message to the CEO in the lounge where he was schmoozing potential clients.

So, boss. The cracker-jack new art director you can’t wait to meet on Monday? He’s a negro.

Which, no doubt, led to the CEO sputtering on his martini, spitting the olive clear across the room.

A what?

You heard right.

That Friday evening, my father received the call. He would not be integrating the ranks of the agency after all. The man they hired, though he lacked my father’s experience and credentials, possessed one qualification my father could never aspire to. Can you guess what that was?

The epilogue to the story is bittersweet. Shortly after losing this opportunity, my father was snapped up as art director for a major publishing house. It was a wonderful fit for him, a job that introduced him to authors such as Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer and even Don Freeman (best known for Corduroy). His first assignment was designing the cover for Bellow’s bestseller, Herzog. My father worked at the publishing house for most of my childhood. He resigned in the 1980’s when I was entering college, due to his failing eyesight.

Dad was replaced by a younger man who was his friend and mentee, though nowhere near as qualified. Dad vouched for this man—who was white, by the way—and trained him in the practical work as well as advising him on publishing house etiquette.  Soon after relinquishing his position, my father learned that the young man’s salary would be on par with other executives at the publishing house: four times what my father had been paid.

When I learned about this, I was already an adult and it shocked me. My father had asked for raises every year, but was denied point blank. The publishing house knew Dad wouldn’t leave. Even if he could find another house to hire him, that one wouldn’t pay him any more. My dad was highly skilled, cheap labor.

When my mother told this story to her then-friend, the woman grew indignant, but not in defense of my father.

“Why didn’t he stand up for himself?” she demanded. Her personal story had taught her that no failure was insurmountable as long as one applied sufficient elbow grease. The moral she took from my mother’s tale was that my father had been weak or lazy.

What this woman failed to understand, or did not care to learn, was the story of being black in twentieth-century America. When my mother told me about this interaction, I thought about the woman’s ‘up-by-the-bootstraps’ story and the glow it cast on my father.

If I could have spoken to this woman, heard her tale first-hand, here’s how I would have responded to her:

“Try that life again—the parental loss, the orphanage, the cruel streets, the poverty—all of it. Try it again, only this time, do it while black.”

She probably wouldn’t have agreed with me that the outcome would have been different, but the discussion might have given her pause. Maybe she would have considered that going through life with black skin is quite different from ‘living while white.’ But the woman’s judgment came from her story. With all the pain she’d grown up with, she couldn’t conceive of a life harder than her own. What she lacked was curiosity about other worldviews.

One of my main criticisms of the Donald Trump Campaign was the rationale behind his slogan, Make America Great Again. Who was it great for? And when was this “great” time to which we want to return? The Jim-Crow era? The 1940’s? The era of Japanese American Internment Camps?  The late 30’s? When America turned away 900 asylum-seeking Jews aboard the SS St. Louis? I could list countless stages in our country’s past when things were less than great for many.

Trump supporters talk about opportunities that were once readily available in exchange for hard work and determination.  ‘If you applied yourself in the good old days,’ that story goes, ‘you could get ahead.’ What I question—and I am far from alone in this is—is the identity of the “you” in that statement. My father worked hard, was determined and applied himself. But blackness was a huge barrier to his success. The truth is, during the Good Old Days you could count on whiteness—the state of not being non-white—as a leg up, a handout. On the other hand, if ‘you’ were not white, you were out of luck. Pull all you like, your bootstraps would not cut the mustard.

Let’s not forget the role unions once played. Unions protected their members, increased job security and insured a living wage. Yet historically blacks were—and in some cases still are—excluded from unions.

Some things have changed in our nation. For better or for worse, the class you were born into limits your opportunities as much, in some cases more than your race. Race no longer corresponds directly to class, though frequently it does.

In any case, our multiple experiences, our pluralistic narratives—these are what will make America truly great for all of us. A first step is to listen to one another, to be eternally curious, and to challenge ourselves to exchange judgment for understanding wherever we can.

At this critical juncture in American History, we need nothing so much as an appreciation of one another’s full American stories.

lunch-counter

 

Advertisements

Aboard the USS Pampanito: A Story for Veteran’s Day

uss-pampanito

Stories are what make us human. Our personal stories make us unique. And, during this time of discord and resentment, I believe that curiosity about one another’s stories can heal us.

On Veterans’ Day, we look to the past—recent and distant—honoring those who have fought, bled and died for our country. We celebrate their stories—some of which we know by heart and some we can only imagine—because they are part of our national identity.

Here is a story about a story: my encounter with a man, a World War II Naval Veteran, whom I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. I don’t know this man’s name, though I wish I did. I should, given what he and his crewmates did for our country and its allies.

I met him while I was vacationing in San Francisco with my husband and children a year and a half ago, visiting the USS Pampanito (SS-383).  A World War II Balao class Fleet submarine, the Pampanito is now an experiential life museum and memorial, docked at Fisherman’s Wharf. As you walk up the gangplank, there’s a sign that says something to the effect of:

80 men, 1 shower, 600 feet beneath the sea.

Beside this is a photograph of the crew circa 1944, all smiling and bearded.

I descended by ladder into a past far removed from anything I’ve experienced. Inside the Forward Torpedo Room, full of bolts, switches, dials, torpedo tubes and a handful of bunks, I tried to imagine this room full of sailors focused on their mission, far from home, hundreds of feet below the surface. My husband and kids were heading for the next room, so I followed through a narrow, circular opening into the Forward Battery Compartment, where mild claustrophobia set in.

There is a reason the spaces on a submarine are called compartments rather than rooms. Conditions were cramped to say the least. I felt it and I am a small woman. The eighty men must have had constant neck cricks from crouching and ducking. They must have known one another by smell, had no secrets whatsoever.

The Mess and Galley compartment was a bit more spacious, with four booths and a radio playing ballads from the early forties. Sitting at a table beside a framed photograph of Betty Grable, was a man, a veteran sailor. Eighty-something, I’d guess. Sparse, white hair, round, wire-rimmed glasses, deep smile lines around his eyes and mouth. From the badges on his uniform, I knew immediately that he was one of the few surviving members of the crew.  He sat, listening to the music, nodding slightly, glancing up now and then as people passed by en route to the After-Battery Compartment. Other tourists, my family included, seemed too fascinated by the well-preserved machinery and living conditions to pay him much attention. But I wanted his story.

“How were you able to do this?” I blurted, startling him. “There were eighty of you in these tiny little compartments!”

“Sometimes more than eighty,” he said, and shared the story about rescuing seventy-three British and Australian POW’s who had survived the sinking of a Japanese ship. On that mission, the sub was filled to almost twice capacity.

I wanted to know if he’d been scared of being on a submarine. I wasn’t even thinking of the enemy, of the bombs–only the pressure, the close quarters, the implications of being surrounded by seawater.

“Did you ever find yourself thinking about all that water?” I asked. “How far you were from the surface?”

“Never gave it a thought.” He told me how each crew member had been selected, how they were tested in comparable conditions—even in isolation tanks—to make sure no one had the potential to panic under the stress. I asked more questions and learned more from him than I would from any guided tour.

I nodded at the photograph of Betty Grable, in her famous over-the-shoulder pose.

“We always had a pin-up on board,” he said with a sideways grin.

I smiled at that, though on some level maybe I should have found it sexist or objectifying of women. I didn’t though. I knew that Betty Grable and other glamorous movie stars helped guys like him get through their grueling missions. The days with no sun or moon. Betty and girls like her were pieces of their hearts, their homes. She made them feel human when nothing else did. She was part of their story.

Now, I cannot romanticize entirely. I have no doubt that there were other stories aboard the Pampanito, stories of crewmen who might have chosen Clark Gable over Betty Grable, who had to keep their true longings, their true selves locked up for fear of abuse. Nor was it lost on me that, in the photograph of the crew, I saw not a single sailor of color. (There were integrated submarine crews during WW II, however, including the mostly-black manned USS PC-1264.) But I was there to see this surviving vessel of the Second World War. I was there to appreciate this veteran’s story for its own sake.

Before moving on, I thanked the man for speaking with me and for his service to the country.

To my surprise, he thanked me. “Most people don’t stop to talk. A lot of them don’t know why I’m sitting here.”

To me, the most valuable treasures on board were this man and his stories. I feel so lucky to have met him, because a year later, I went back and he wasn’t there. I hoped it was his day off.

betty-grable

Wishing you and your loved ones a peaceful Veteran’s day.