Monday, January 19, 2009

What Obama Means to Me

My parents were white shopkeepers in the black ghetto of Harlem, living in back of a small store, selling things to people even poorer than they were. Their customers were descended from African slaves, while they themselves had left behind a Europe where their kind would soon be killed by the millions.

We were all safe here from servitude and slaughter, but not fully American, free but far from equal.

When I was three and seriously ill, my parents gave up the store and moved away, but my father kept working in Harlem for the next forty years. When I was old enough, I would sometimes go with him on a Saturday for the fourteen hours he spent in a pawnshop there.

The patrons came parading through, most of them well-dressed, almost all black, carrying clothes, jewelry, musical instruments, cameras to offer as hostage for the few dollars they had to have for a few days or weeks.

Some seemed down and defeated, but many were jaunty, with the aliveness of people always dancing on the edge. Seeing me, they flashed white smiles from their dark faces, surprised and amused to find a kid among the forbidding figures guarding the pawnbroker’s cash box. I always smiled back, trying to drink in some of their joy.

Pawnbrokers made loans to the desperate, with higher interest than banks were allowed to charge. In earlier days, they were little more than fences, acquiring stolen goods cheap to resell. Now strict laws required them to be wary--but it was a sad business, bordering on usury, profiting from human misery. For my father, it was simply where he worked sixty hours a week to earn sixteen dollars.

Once he brought home an autograph, from Colonel Hubert Julian, an American pilot who single-handed had opposed Mussolini’s air force in Abyssinia to become known as Haile Selassie’s “Black Eagle.” What led him to a Harlem pawnshop I never learned, but for years I saved that scrap with the flamboyant signature of a genuine hero.

In the windows of Harlem shops, black-on-yellow placards showed the week’s offerings of local movie houses: Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen (huge letters) in “Gone With the Wind” with (much smaller) Clark Gable, or “The Big Broadcast of 1937” starring Rochester and (footnote size) Jack Benny. There was so little to nourish pride on those streets that when Joe Louis (called by newspapers, without irony, “a credit to his race”) knocked out Max Schmeling in their 1938 rematch for the heavyweight title, Harlem erupted in riotous joy.

After returning from World War II, I went to work at City College's Harlem campus, where I fell in love with a beautiful, brilliant young woman. But a decade before Barack Obama was born, we--certainly I--did not have the courage to marry and bring interracial children into that world so little changed from the time of my own childhood.

When the new president takes the oath of office tomorrow, my heart and all those memories will be with him.


(O)CT(O)PUS said...

Blessings to you, Mr. Stein. A very special day for all of us.

My grandparents emigrated to America and settled in NYC, perhaps not far from your old neighborhood . My great-grandparents stayed in Europe ... never to be heard from again.

The civil rights movement and war in Vietnam informed my moral consciousness. I was maybe 14 years old when, against my parents wishes, I hitched to Washington DC to witness Dr. Kings famous speech.

Today, my own children are in Washington DC to witness the inauguration. It has been a long journey ... and I can't imagine living a life different from the one I have.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written.

I grew up in Birmingham, in an area that experienced over 60 "unsolved bombings" of black homes between the end of WWII and the Civil Rights Act.

I was a few blocks away, on my way to breakfast, when four children were blown up in the 16th Street Baptist Church.

As the grandson of a white sharecropper, and the son-in-law of a black man, I thank God for letting me see this day.