Nearly 90 years ago, I was born to 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.
From the Bronx, I commuted to City College, walking ten blocks to and from the subway station every day through a sea of dark faces without fear or harm.
After returning from World War II and being shot at by white people, I graduated and went to work at that 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 a world so little changed from the time of my own childhood.
Soon afterward, I went to work as an editor in midtown Manhattan and was eventually hired by George H. W. Bush’s father-in-law as the first Jew among hundreds of employees. Needless to say, everyone there was white.
In 1955 at Redbook I assigned the first article in a national magazine on 26-year-old Martin Luther King during the Montgomery, Alabama bus strike. Ten years later when I was editor of McCall’s Dr. King wrote a memoir for me about leading young African-American gang members from Chicago on non-violent Freedom Marches in Mississippi where “they were to be attacked by tear gas. They were to protect women and children with no other weapons but their own bodies.”
When I became head of the American Society of Magazine Editors, I began an effort to recruit African-American college students as summer internes, but that program was watered down by fellow editors and subverted by a young black woman hired to recruit applicants who was found to be urging them not “to buy into the system.”
Martin Luther King was killed, and so was any white naivete about easily changing a culture so deeply ingrained in American life.
Looking back at that time and the years that followed brings a heavy sense of swimming against powerful tides that now seem even stronger than ever in the wake of an African-American president.
Yet there is hope in TV panels of black faces debating uncomfortable statistics on crime in their own communities and old white people trying to sort out what they can do for a better future.
Barack Obama has opened up biographical soul-searching. If it can slowly begin to change minds and hearts, the generations that follow us will be the better for it.