Archive for Race & Parenting

Teens and Race, Part IV: A Tale of Two Cities

Dear Son,

I. Baton Rouge, La.

Although I began my college in Dallas (only because SMU offered the best full athletic scholarship), the first year was boring.  Early in my sophomore year, Adam strolled into my open dorm room.  Other than the 2-3 black athletes on the track team and the 2-3 in my high school, he was the first African American I’d met.

Adam was an amazing talker: as they said in Texas at the time, he could charm the skin off a snake! I was very surprised to hear that he had no “black accent” whatsoever. It proved very useful in making dinner reservations and especially on our long trip to Chicago and New York:he could seemingly arrange almost anything over the phone!  In the 60’s and 70’s the cheapest way for 2-5 people to travel was a “Driveacar”, a company that transported people’s cars and then found drivers who only had to pay for gas-even better than Uber!

So what about Baton Rouge you say?  Adam was actually from New Orleans, the big city a couple hours south.  I visited him once for Mardi Gras (a real “bucket list” experience) and of course enjoyed the carnival atmosphere.  What was almost equally enjoyable was to stay with his very friendly family and be greeted by the “rooster guard-dog” in the front yard!

OK, now for the Baton Rouge connection. It is the capital of Louisiana and maybe even more importantly, the home of Louisiana State University, one of the South’s oldest and largest. Adam claimed to have been one of the first black students there, but if you’re not the very first, it’s hard to verify and Adam was full of some mind-stretching stories.  The one I do believe was his depiction of his first shower after his PE class: he said that many of the white students sincerely expressed surprise that he didn’t have a tail, as their families had told them! At least we’ve ALL moved beyond that in the 21st century!

II. Kansas City: a tale of two grandmas

There is a current nexis (a good word to know) between the two cities.  About a month ago, a black man was shot and killed by the police in Baton Rouge. The incident is still being investigated (my old friend Adam and the victim shared the same surname but were not related) but apparently in retaliation a black man from Kansas City drove all the way to Baton Rouge, almost 800 miles, and shot several law enforcement officers, killing three. This was less than ten days after the five police murders in Dallas.

Kansas City was an important part of my youth, especially prior to high school.  I had visited my grandmother and my dad’s side of the family, every Thanksgiving, Christmas and part of summer vacation annually. Although Missouri was a border state and thus not part of the Confederacy, my dad’s mom was racist to the core, openly using the “n-word”.  The irony was that she was the dearest, sweetest woman I ever met in my life, far nicer than my mom’s mom in upper New York State (who was not overtly racist and in fact the KKK burned a cross in HER yard, back in the 1920’s, since they were also against Catholics and Jews).

My KC grandma was so nice that I usually forgot about her racism and it was only natural to call her for a place to stay since her city was on the route Adam and I took on our grand sojourn to Chicago and New York. The dinner and evening with my grandmother went very well and she was nothing but extremely pleasant to Adam the entire time. We bade farewell the next morning and it seemed that all was well.

It wasn’t until I talked to my dad on the phone a few days later that I heard there was a problem. He was what I might call “semi-indignant” and said that grandma was shocked to see me with a black friend and that she immediately washed all the sheets on Adam’s bed as soon as we left.

My dad himself had the chance to succumb to Adam’s charms (perhaps part of it was that Adam was wearing a suit whereas I was in typically sloppy 1968 era garb) and was the perfect gentlemen when Adam had an overnight stay in our new California home a couple weeks later. My dad and I did argue about race but not as much as the Vietnam War. Speaking of Asia, and in conclusion, my dad was much more anti-Japanese than anti-black, having served in Okinawa in WW II.  I can still see the shocked look on his face as he drove me to the airport for my first job in Japan!






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Black History Month and Equal Parenting Part III

Since the Oscars were on this week it seemed appropriate to talk about films for this topic.  Race was certainly the overhanging theme of this year’s event and kudos must be given to Chris Rock for making it  a relatively light-hearted four hours after the media had brought a couple of months of “Sturm und Drang” by constantly linking race and the film industry.

I plan to bring these two disparate topics together by comparing and contrasting two films from 1967.  The first of these is “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.  I read that it was the biggest box office comedy in history until surpassed by “The Graduate”, which was released just a few months later.  “Dinner” had a trio of dramatic actors, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  Tracy and Poitier were multiple Oscar winners and Ms. Hepburn still holds the honor of the greatest number of “Best Actress” Oscars.

The film harks back to last week’s observation that in the 50’s and 60’s a black man had to be twice as talented/successful to be considered half as good.  Poitier’s character is off the scale completely: an Ivy-League educated physician who does Dr. Schweitzer-like work for children in Africa.  To add to his saint-like demeanor, his wife and young son had died in a car crash a few years earlier.  Thus, he was even able to surpass Tom Hank’s character, in “Sleepless in Seattle” who merely had to cope with a wife’s cancer death (having been in a couple of relationships with women who were turned off by my custody battles, I can tell you that there’s an incredible difference between having to cope with a widower and dealing with a shrieking ex-wife).

Overall, one must say that “Dinner” was a superb combination of great acting, a lively script (winner of a Best Screenplay Oscar) and a delicate interweaving of comedy and drama.  There was great chemistry between all three sets of couples, the dazzling young pair, Poitier’s working class mom and dad and of course Kate and Spencer, probably the best on-screen (and some say off-screen as well) couple of all time.  The film certainly captures the race relations of its era  perhaps better than any in history.

Also in 1967 was “Divorce American Style”, or in this context it could be called “Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner”.  It was directed by Norman Lear, who was considered a comedy genius in the 70’s for “All In The Family” and “The Jeffersons”, both of which tackled race relations with full gusto but that topic is completely missing in “Style”.  Virtually the entire cast was lily-white but the dads in the film certainly had as much second-class status as most minority groups.  Two of the great comic actors of the 60’s, Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds, play the main divorcing couple and Van Dyke is shocked to find that he now has to live on $87/ week ($31,000 per year in 2016 dollars) and of course has only a token amount of time with his children.  Two other Oscar-winning dramatic actors, Jason Robards and Jean Simmons round out the cast. Pardon the pun but one would have to classify this one as a “black comedy”.

Alimony is a real obsession for the men, and to be fair, this was reformed a bit in the 70’s under “no fault” divorce laws.  What has not changed is attorney’s getting rich over the dad’s misery.  Near the end of the film Jason Robards’ character sadly laments: “The trouble is the legislature.”  Truer words were never spoken, especially in California.  Over the intervening four decades, many equal parenting bills have been introduced but they don’t make it out of commitee thanks to trial lawyers and taxpayer-subsidized feminist groups. Indeed a father in California in the 21st century has about as much chance of achieving equal time with his children as a black man found getting equal justice in Mississippi in the 1960’s: as seen by that other great 1967 Sidney Poitier film, “In The Heat of the Night”.



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