I was 8 years old when, on January 20th, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the country’s 35th President. About all that it meant to me at the time was that his picture would replace Dwight D. Eisenhower’s on the wall behind the desk of Mrs. Bemis, my 3rd grade teacher. She was a portly woman, and one of only two Caucasian teachers in my elementary school. I think she was elderly, but it’s difficult to put her age into perspective as, at that time, anyone over 30 seemed to me ready to collect Social Security.
I had watched Kennedy’s inauguration on television at Sugarbear’s apartment. Ronald was one of my best friends and he hated that nickname, but he so resembled Post Sugar Crisp’s advertising mascot that, after I had called him Sugarbear in class one day, the nickname stuck; even his mother began calling him Sugarbear.
Sugarbear’s family had this wonderful console model television that his father and two friends had lugged up five flights of stairs. His dad had found an outdoor antenna, but did not have any of the hardware to attach it securely to the roof. So he tied it to the fire escape outside the living room window with some clothesline.
One afternoon I was watching television at Sugarbear’s house. His mom remarked how pasty white Jacqueline Kennedy appeared. I had to duck a couch pillow she threw at me when I reminded her that, on a black and white picture tube, all Caucasians looked pasty white.
A year later we were all fairly pale—frightened and shaking—when President Kennedy announced on television that there were offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. One of my neighbors, Karl, a jazz musician who had graduated from Cornell Medical School but never practiced, explained to me that the Russian-made missiles there had a range of 2000 miles, which meant that Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, where we lived, was within range. Karl seemed to know so much about everything; he had introduced me to jazz, taking me to see Stan Getz at the Village Vanguard for my tenth birthday. His girlfriend, Alma, whom he introduced to everyone but me as his wife, was crying as we watched the President that night. Karl was holding us both, trying to reassure us that CONELRAD would issue an emergency radio broadcast well ahead of any approaching missiles, giving us all enough time to get to the fallout shelter in the basement of my elementary school.
On November 22nd the following year, all time stopped — President Kennedy had been assassinated. I’ll never forget Officer MacDougall at the corner, waving my friends and me across the street on our way home from school. I had seen him every school day for as long as I could remember. He had brought Sugarbear and me to the stables where the mounted police kept their horses, broken up a fight between an older kid and me and taken me to the Henry St. Settlement House where the Police Athletic League ran their boxing program. And now, after his supervisor had just said something to him and driven off, Officer MacDougall was calling me over to him. When I reached him I saw his face; he looked as though all the blood had been drained from him. He hugged me like I was one of his own kids, then motioned for me to rejoin my friends, all the while saying nothing.
Later, Karl made no effort to suppress his anger. He said that they would never have allowed 24 years of Kennedys—Jack, Bobby and Ted—in the White House. I had wondered who “they” were, but it seemed that everyone in the building knew, and no one believed it was Lee Harvey Oswald.
As the decade progressed, with a race riot across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey, student protests at Columbia University over the Vietnam War, and two more political assassinations, I felt energized. These were my people—angry at a lack of representation in local government, fed up with poverty and police brutality; my war—teenagers, drafted to fight in Vietnam for the benefit of a power elite, our plight largely ignored by the general public until the Caucasian sons of elected officials started dying; and my heroes—Robert Kennedy, he more than any politico then or now had the pathos to understand that dignity should be afforded to all people, and Martin Luther King, whom I admired but actually felt less of a connection.
1970 brought my own involuntary participation in that conflict 10,000 miles from my favorite movie theater, and a perfect foil for a generation—Richard Nixon. Never had one man done so much for Halloween masks as had “Tricky Dick.”
When President Nixon resigned, all the air left the balloon. All the moments since then did not mark a generation so much as they stained the glass through which I looked at the world. For a quarter century I walked lockstep with everyone else, as though slogging through mud. Then came the morning of September 11th, 2001; the numbness and fear I felt a generation earlier returned, but this time without the resonance of reason, that assurance that—somehow, some way—the President would resolve this, had to resolve this. My sense of our political conduct since that day is like that of a blind man throwing darts—until now.
Barack Obama has emerged to reach across the gulf of age and race, class and ethnicity, as John Kennedy tried, and to an even greater extent, his brother Robert succeeded. He has that calm demeanor that allows one to believe he’ll approach even the direst circumstance with reason and restraint. It doesn’t take courage to fire first, and Mr. Obama seems to have learned that lesson at an early age. And, yes, he is Black. It seems momentous now, but I remember a conversation I overheard after David Dinkins, New York City’s first Black mayor, was defeated by Rudy Giuliani. A fellow said, “Well, we had a Black mayor. We got that out of the way. We won’t see that for a while.”
If the presidency of Barack Obama is allowed to become nothing more than a blip on the radar screen, then those people in this country who still view Blacks with enmity will have a similar excuse with which to exclude future participation by people of color at the highest political level. If Mr. Obama’s success as President is to be more than a momentary crack in that most obvious of glass ceilings, then it must be a success for all people. It must embrace a sense of fairness and egalitarianism, and allow us to believe that, once again, anything is possible, and there is a reason to pursue a greater good.