I was born in 1952. I came to life as an American in 1963. I would love to say it happened while watching the World Series on television or, even better, when I witnessed the March on Washington and had a new dream. But my mind is filled with a shocking memory. I see myself in the kitchen in my parents’ new home, four feet away from the fireplace, face glued to the black and white portable television set resting on a wheeled stand in the corner. President Kennedy’s assassination days earlier had not really hit home. It seemed like the stories I read in my beloved biographies and novels. On my TV screen I witnessed Lee Harvey Oswald being moved from one place to another. His hands were bound or handcuffed behind his back. He looked strangely and, I thought, menacingly at the camera. A voice spoke over the pictures. Walter Cronkite? Dan Rather? Suddenly, the screen was filled with the picture of the back of a large man in a suit and hat. Pop. Pop. Police rushed onscreen. Oswald collapsed. I became an American.
June 1968. My bedroom in the same house. It’s after midnight. I cannot sleep. Lifelong insomnia already has me in its grip. My prized personal possession, a Panasonic clock radio purchased at Grand Central is turned on, set to turn off automatically, the clock’s face glowing at me in the dark. Another voice. An announcement. Robert Francis Kennedy has been shot in a Los Angeles Hotel. I think it must be a dream. President Kennedy was shot in ’63. I awake to hear the dream has died. Ted Kennedy says days later, “The Dream will never die!” I believe him. An idealist is born.
October 1973. I’m walking along a street in Wuppertal, Germany. It’s a lovely place. I have a terrific companion. We work hard. Autumn in Germany is spectacular. Life is good. We pass a newspaper dispenser. In extra large letters the headline reads, “Agnew Resigns.” Stunned, I sit down on the bumper of a Mercedes. The Vice-president admits corruption, is a crook. My American self quietly weeps until the owner of the Mercedes runs me off. I have survived the October Surprise, the Secret Plan to win the Vietnam War, the Christmas Bombing of Cambodia, the dismissal of America by the people I spoke with every day. My idealism is shaken, cracked, but not shattered.
June 1978. Riding in a blue Datsun 510 down a wide avenue in Bakersfield, California. Listening again to the radio. My baby daughter and pregnant wife are with me. Weeks before, I’d been admitted to the graduate school of my choice. My life is filled with the expectation of a new child and a new life. What could be better? The voice comes over the radio, once again. The president of the Mormon Church has received a “revelation” allowing Blacks to hold the priesthood. Can it be? This is surely a mistake. . . . Confirmation. Ecstasy. The Dream is still alive.
September 1978. We live in Hyde Park, a neighborhood of Chicago. The first missionaries to proselytize on the South Side are here. The converts come, each with a miracle to announce the fruits of the revelation. The Dream is my life.
1987-2008. Never more than dormant, the idealism is challenged and battered. I come to understand more deeply than ever that the Civil Rights movement, with all its chaos and imperfection, is the most pressing moral challenge the country has faced in my lifetime. I devour book after book that confirms my belief. I feel compelled to find ways to include writings by Martin Luther King, Jr., Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, and so many others in my courses. I know I am somehow swimming against the current. Do these students understand? Do they dream at all?
November 4, 2008. The television screen is focused on Grant Park in Chicago. In my mind’s eye, I travel back to Taste of Chicago with its stunning diversity and explosion of ethnic cuisines. I remember beautiful outdoor classical music emanating live classical music. The players superb. The music sublime. I look north from the park to the Art Institute. Darker images intrude. Thousands of demonstrators. Police in riot gear carrying nightsticks. A true generational and cultural war. Screaming. Obscenity. Blood pouring. Everyone confused. No one wants it. Everyone is caught up in the wave of violence. The picture is sickening. How could the Dream survive?
The camera pans over the park. Black faces, white faces, Hispanic faces, men and women, young and old. Oprah rests her head on the shoulder of a white man in front of her who could be the son of a police officer from 1968. Jessie Jackson is among the crowd. That balcony in Memphis, Dr. King’s wounded body cradled in Jackson’s arms. “I am somebody.” Close-ups. Cheering people of all colors and creeds. All together. Celebrating a single event. Tears of joy. Can it be? The Dream has never died.