Sunday, January 18, 2009

Reflections in Black and White

I suppose the momentous occasion of Barack Obama's presidency has many, many people thinking about how they first encountered racism in society or even within their families. Some say we as a nation are past the hurtful times, but at the personal level there is still much to be done.

Most Plainfielders hold up the community's diversity as a thing of value, maybe even the main reason why they want to live here. A large part of the community makes no distinction over race or ethnicity but just wants good neighbors, effective elected officials and friends from many backgrounds. Outsiders don't always "get" Plainfield, so co-workers or relatives may question why residents like the city. Some won't even come to visit.

It is this latter group who may not be able to see the scope of Obama's triumph, but will get bogged down over color. A speaker on public radio recounted last week how his sister told him he was not welcome to stay at her home while attending the inauguration. How sad, I thought. It took me back to the 1950s in East Orange where I had two African-American schoolmates whose homes I could visit, but who were not welcome at my family's home. Amy and I bonded over music . As I recall, we both cried when Charlie Parker died in 1955. Ernestine and I shared a sense of humor and a budding intellectuality. Her parents were so refined and gracious to me that I felt keenly the shortcomings of my own family in the manners department.

In 1958, my husband-to-be and I often went to jazz clubs where musicianship did away with racial divides, but it was from his Italian family that I learned all the epithets that later surfaced on The Sopranos. Somewhere along the line, I began my own Africana studies at a local library before there was any such formal course. And reading about black artists and musicians, I learned how many became expatriates to places where their talent was their main credential.

Listening to Malcolm X on late-night radio in the 1960s, reading Wright, Ellison, Baldwin and more while living in mostly white, intolerant communities, I was on a path to Plainfield without knowing it. Here I met people like the late Rev. Frank Allen, a Garveyite; Hassan Salim, a one-man cultural force in African garb; the very sophisticated Clyde Allen; the late radio personality Bro. Arthur Bailey III and many more movers and shakers, thinkers and dreamers, race men and sorors, Plainfielders all.

Luckily for me, I was able to help tell some of their stories in weekly and daily newspapers and to realize that relations were generally getting better among diverse groups in the city. Somehow, when Barack Obama came on the national scene, his words and his demeanor resonated with so many people that the past, with its often ugly twists and turns, began to fade before the bright hope he represents.

That is not to say that everyone is on board with what he stands for, but the tears of joy on the faces of people at inaugural events tell us that enough people believe in him to bring about a fundamental shift in the nation's direction. Though known for his erudite and eloquent speeches, I think even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would happily have joined today in the simple declaration, "Yes, we can!"

--Bernice Paglia

4 Comments:

Blogger Bill Hetfield said...

Dear Bernice,

A most thoughful reflection. Advanced! Charles Allen, Plainfield's first Public Safety Director once said to me "you have no idea what it's like to be black." Of course, he was right. My retort was "you have no idea what it is like to live in a community where expectations are minimal." And that is the rub. For all the social benefits of living in an integrated Plainfield that my family and I realized, if asked, would I do it again? To be frank, I'm not sure. The struggle for an economically and socially vibrant city has not been achieved. Plainfield is in pain. However, the optimist in me says that the "tipping point" or nadir of national and local political leadership has been realized. Whether President Obama or a new Mayor of Plainfield will be the change agents that are needed, time will only tell. History suggests that crises bring out the best in our leaders. Couldn't happen soon enough.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Colleen Gibney said...

Bernice, you raise an interesting point about outside people not 'getting' Plainfield. Back when I lived in DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood, it was just starting to become effective at promoting the benefits of its diversity to non-residents to create outward appeal as a desirable destination (through festivals, galleries, restaurants, and nightclubs). Plainfield has its own strengths to leverage in this regard.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Dottie Gutenkauf said...

When we moved to Plainfield, many of our friends and colleagues were shocked. That was 26 years ago, and I'm so glad we came here and stayed! I think Plainfield's greatest strength is its people--warm, friendly, and savvy. I can't think of a better place to live--I love Plainfield, warts and all.

4:23 PM  
Anonymous Renata said...

Me too Dottie...I do regret however I may have to leave this far city as my company has relocated to Horsham, PA and the 3-hour commute is killing a sistah!!!

But if I have my druthers -- I will be here in Plainfield until I go HOME!

10:49 PM  

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