Personal Reflections—Memories Brought Again to Life

Neal Kramer visits once again!. See his earlier posts here, here, here, and here.

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.

Comments

  1. Neal,

    I thought of the juxtaposition of 1968 and 2008 in Grant Park myself last night. The Dream is still alive, indeed.

  2. This may be the best blog post I have read about this today. You really captured it. beautiful.

  3. Very, very nice.

  4. Jonathan Green says:

    Two cheers for Wuppertal in August.

  5. Neal,
    Thanks. You are by far my favorite blog author.

  6. That’s a lovely post Neal.

    It’s indicative of what our country can do.

    —–

    Posted here at the All Beliefs discussion forum:

    The Dream

  7. Great post, Neal. Many of those same events resonate for me in much the same way. Although I must confess that when the LTM president in Laie, Hawaii, got up that October day in 1973 and announced in subdued tones that Vice President Agnew had resigned, it was all I could do to stop myself jumping up and shouting hallelujah! (I also wondered why the subdued tones–I thought everybody would be glad to be rid of that crook Agnew (and now that he was out of the way, Nixon would be next). And when, 10 months later I saw the headline:

    ???? ?? (Nikuson Jinin–Nixon Resigns)

    I again rejoiced that that long national nightmare was over.

    But the scenes in Grant Park (and the scenes a few miles uptown on 125th Street in Harlem) last night were wonderful, and give me hope (despite my misgivings about many of the things Obama has stood for–note the tense: I’m hoping that he has or will change some of them), hope that many more of our fellow citizens will see in Obama the fact that none is excluded from the family of Americans and that all of us share in the blessings and responsibilities of citizenship in this nation.

  8. What a great post. It took me back to my relation with those events and the feelings and experiences that I had. Thanks for sharing these.

  9. Blast it: I see that all my efforts to rediscover (and rewrite) that headline in the Asahi Shimbun of August 9, 1974 resulted in a lousy line of question marks.

    Who’s the admin on this blog, anyway?

  10. I was slogging through another southern Chile rainstorm when we decided to take refuge in a member’s house. As we entered he said to me, “So Elder, you have a new president.”

    I had no idea what he was talking about until he invited me to sit down and watch the TV news.

  11. Neal,

    The dream is still alive here in Hyde Park. Idealistic tears were shed in this home on Tuesday night and on Wednesday morning we awoke to beautiful sunshine and a fresh start. The feeling in this corner of the city is one of ecstasy. Students and professors alike are giddy and all smiles–yes, giddy, smiling U of C people…the world has gone crazy. I hope the madness lasts.

  12. Neal – Thanks for illustrating that we really are moving in the right direction in our country – as painful and as cumbersome as it sometimes seems – it is in the right direction.

  13. Martin Willey says:

    Having lived through many of the same experiences you decribed, I thought my idealism was tempered, but intact. I was truly surprised by how moved I was by the events of Tuesday night. The faces of young African-Americans in the Grant Park crowd, the emotion in African-American commentators voices, the joy shared by so many. It was wonderful.

  14. fp

    Not to worry. The grim faces will return by February. Nothing to do with politics, and I’m not predicting (and I certainly don’t want) an Obama administration implosion.

    But it’ll be winter in Chicago. And everybody will forget the joy of victory and just get back to the serious business of slogging through another February in Chicago. And that’ll bring back the grim faces.

  15. Researcher says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I’m glad I saved it to read today.

  16. nasamomdele says:

    Wonderful post. Thank you.

  17. I enjoyed reading this very much. Thanks.

  18. Thank you, Neal. I hope you save this for your posterity to read. Add pictures!! Beautifully, beautifully said.

  19. Gayle Gates says:

    Reflective, relevant. Reeeeeeeally good stuff! I like your writing, Neal!

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