Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Going back to 1954

I was thirteen and a trip to Connie Mack Stadium in northeast Philadelphia was an unheard of treat. Although we lived only about 45 miles from the city, it was rare to be able to actually travel there, let alone to witness a baseball game with my mother and stepfather.

But it turned out I witnessed far more than an athletic contest that record hot August day. Although 58 years have passed, I still have a vivid memory of what happened when we left the stadium and sat in traffic waiting to get to Broad Street and on our way home.

The row homes that bordered each side of Lehigh Avenue contained people everywhere... on the steps, in rocking chairs on the porches, hanging out upper story windows. Unlike my own neighborhood, there were no air conditioning units visible and most of the residents waved papers or magazines to try to ward off the stifling heat.

I had never seen anything like it...misery on every face, often downright hostility in the eyes of many who watched the cars snake by, heading away from the way they lived every day.

I remember telling my parents I would hate to live that way, to be doomed to a life in the city, in the heat. Fresh from listening to the news coverage of the fight for freedom in the segregated South, I suppose I was an idealistic kid, whose sensibilities were offended by the thought that an entire race was treated as inferior and that the laws were only then beginning to recognize the injustice and move to remedy it.

As the years went on, I never forgot that seminal moment in my human rights education. Living in a small southern New Jersey town, where the few black citizens lived outside the town limits and there were no colored faces in our Catholic school classrooms, I still managed to grow into adulthood feeling a strong sense of the unfairness faced by so many of my fellow Americans.

Not even the passage of all sorts of new laws designed to help eradicate the decades of injustice...equal rights laws,  Affirmative Action laws, all of them... could succeed in changing the nature of race relations in America, where a seething racism seemed to lurk just below the surface of civil society.

So I shouldn't have been stunned by the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. I should have been prepared, as African-American mothers and fathers prepare their sons, to expect that justice would turn a blind eye to the provocation, stalking and ultimate murder of Trayvon Martin. A friend explained to me how her husband instructed their son, as soon as he became old enough to understand, how to behave on the street or in his car should he be approached by a law enforcement officer, how to conduct himself so as to avoid anything further than a harsh look or comment.

Had I been the mother of a son, I would not have been forced to teach him the same lesson. My son, unlike those of many of my friends, would never have to contend with racial profiling. They could walk, run or drive on any thoroughfare they chose without fear of being singled out because of their race.

That same feeling of despair and anger that I experienced in 1954 rose to the surface of my consciousness again as I thought of the sorrow and pain being endured by Trayvon Martin's mother. She'd probably told her son the same careful out there...but certainly had no reasonable expectation that he would breathe his last at the hands of someone who singled him out, followed him and challenged his right to walk home from the store.

George Zimmerman could have stayed in his car. Should have. George Zimmerman could have pulled his gun and told Mr. Martin to leave the neighborhood. George Zimmerman could have waited for the police and let them discover that Mr. Martin's father lived on that street. And, as someone so eloquently posted on Facebook today, George Zimmerman could have pulled over and offered Mr. Martin a ride home, out of the rain. Unlikely, but in an ideal world, oh so wishful.

I won't live to see a world where something like that might occur. My children and even my grandchildren probably won't either. It will take generations yet for the minds of Americans to be educated to the fact that we are all one people. When one among us suffers injustice, so do we all, and I am deeply saddened to see it, again, again and again.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Making the past live

I'm working steadily on one of my bucket list projects. Won't finish this until I'm 80, perhaps, but it's too much fun to stop.

Like everyone I know, I have albums of photos. I also have a lockbox filled with manila envelopes containing oodles of photos. Not in any particular order, just bunches of pictures.

Do they mean anything to anyone but me? I'd like to think they matter to my kids, who probably didn't know or can't remember many of the people in them, but from whom they came... their ancestors.

I don't remember, nor did I ever know, many of the people in the sepia-toned photos of my grandparents and their friends and families. Thanks to my cousin Felicia, I can identify most of those people, but I didn't know many of them.

Still, they matter to me and I'm hoping someday one of my grandchildren or one of their children will look at the pictures and understand why I took on this project.

I am scanning and storing those pictures. It's a painful project because I do them one at a time, cleaning up the fuzziness, brightening the color, adding names and dates.

But it's also an enjoyable project. By the time I reached the late 1940s and early 1950s, I not only knew the subjects in each photo, I remembered when it was taken. I can remember the color of a dress, even if the photo is in black and white. I can look inside the house in which I spent my teenage years. I can hear the accented English being spoken by my maternal grandmother as she welcomed us to her house for Sunday dinner. I can recall bits and pieces of my valedictory speech as I see the photo of myself in front of the microphone on graduation day. I hear my mother laugh, although it's been nearly 41 years since she left us. I enjoy the smiles on the faces of my mother and stepfather, my grandmother and grandfather, as they shared a joke, enjoyed a holiday or just hammed it up for the camera.

I'm glad the project still has multiple albums and envelopes-full to go before I am finished. I'm not really in any hurry. I'd rather take my time and remember each photo I slip into the scanner. In a way, it brings back my past and helps me relive those days.

So I hope my kids and grandchildren will look at them one day and be glad I did this. It sure beats inheriting a box filled with photos of nameless, meaningless people that they will, without compunction, destroy as irrelevant.

They won't have to feel disconnected from the strange people they see. I hope my project makes those people live for them, even decades after they walked the earth.

This project is for you, guys.