What I Know Now: Year End Remembrances and Reflections on our Great American Melting Pot
The Importance of Believing in YourSelf, Refusing to be Humiliated, and Knowing that, Despite All, our Country’s Future is Bright
I know now that I should have refused to be humiliated. I have always had enormous hope for our future.
The year was 1964. A newly married grad student in social work at the University of Pennsylvania, I had recently moved to Philadelphia, where my husband was a law student.
1964 was at the heart of a determinedly humanistic period before the civil rights movement became psychotic. This was a time when those in college and graduate school were sure we would be among the many, changing our world, ushering in a new chapter of justice. We marched; we picketed; we sat in and were arrested. We endured the assassination of John F. Kennedy a year before. Lyndon Johnson had both orchestrated a massive civil rights bill and ushered in The Great Society, offering longed for hope, direction and opportunity. Our activism continued. Some of our bravest died.
This was before two further assassinations, Martin Luther King (in April, 1968) and Robert Kennedy (in June, 1968); before facing that combat in Viet Nam was involvement in a civil war; and before an awareness, terrifyingly familiar in our most recent presidential election, that “the (supposed) best and brightest” could be ill equipped to safeguard us.
In 1964, my (then) husband and I attended a party of law students, about 15 in number, one woman law student among them. The wives and one husband remained quiet, in awe, as future lawyers discussed the actions necessary to bring equality and justice to our nation, one where prejudice continued to reign. I could not follow all of the legalize, but I surely knew I was in the presence of those who tested well enough to enter the ranks of a privileged law school.
Then, one of the kindest attorneys-to-be turned to me, and asked what I thought was the best route to justice and opportunity. “After all,” he said, “you are also a graduate student.” There was silence. I gulped, waiting for someone, anyone to continue a previous conversation. But when no one did, and the silence seemed to grow louder and louder, despite feeling completely overwhelmed by the changed focus, I somehow managed to speak….
I said that the laws they discussed were necessary safeguards, and activism on behalf of those who had no voice had to continue. Yet, I believed that as years passed the great melting pot that is American would reach justice through love — that in time we would be able to build a life with whomever we wished — that in time so many of our children would be of mixed heritage, loved by their extended families — that hatred toward difference would only remain with those who could not accept this inevitable, this wonderful, change.
The room seemed to be engulfed by an even deeper silence than before. My husband looked at me from across the room as if I were the stupidest member of this planet. The kind questioner brought me some scotch, and whispered an apology for “putting you on the spot.” Other than he, no one spoke to me for the rest of the evening. Overwhelmed by humiliation, I tried several times to leave my chair and walk home, but my legs felt immobilized.
When the evening finally ended, I was still sitting alone, scotch basically untouched— the little I sipped made me feel ill. Somehow I managed to follow my then husband out the door. As soon as we were alone on the street he asked angrily, “Did you have to embarrass us both with your irrational ‘do-gooder’ nonsense?”
Fast forward to now: My husband (whom I married in 1979) and I recently celebrated our 38th anniversary. We are about to go out to dinner, and the streets will be full of couples. There will be men and women; women and women; and men and men. There will be couples and children of various colors and shades. Of course, as ever, enduring marriage requires kindness and devoted work (and a little luck does not hurt). But today there is choice about whom to know and love and do all possible to build with.
I was not so stupid after all.