This is a continuation of a memoir split into two parts concerning the afternoon my father, while working as a sandwich boy on the Boston to New York train, met Eleanor Roosevelt, who actually sat down and chatted with him. Part 1 is below “Either Or With Stacey E. Bryan.”
I’ve mused over time whether or not an encounter with Mrs. Roosevelt would have been the same for another teenager, one without my father’s challenges.
That kid may have thought, “Gee, the President’s wife is swell,” and gone merrily on his way. He or she probably wouldn’t have either known or remembered, for example, that in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marion Anderson perform at Constitution Hall. My father knew, though. He knew that Mrs. Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in dissent, simultaneously offering a paradoxical puzzle to the public at large: why did Americans damn Hitler but censor Miss Anderson? This difference in awareness of how America viewed them, how America fought for or against them, might account for another kid, our fictitious second kid, being charmed, perhaps, by meeting Mrs. R. Pleased, but not genuinely touched.
If Eleanor Roosevelt had suddenly removed a crystal ball from within her satchel and showed my father his future, even he may have been impressed. He’d watch himself prising open various closed doors, including the unabashedly clannish ones of Braemar Country Club and L.A. Athletic Club, making it possible thereafter for other minorities to join. He’d see himself elected as Chairman of the Board of Governors of said LAAC. The crystal ball would reveal a man chosen as first Chairman ever of the John Wooden Awards, a man invited as part of a Minority Task Force to the White House. My father would see the optimism and open-mindedness he’d fostered his entire life realized in unforeseen and unimagined ways.
Many years later, Eleanor R. was dying, disappointed with the slow progress of social change.
And with reason. Many years later I was born not to my parents but to a white woman and a black man. And while that might have seemed to bode well for change, my biological mother gave me up for adoption, telling the administrators that I was white. This plan failed because as time went on, I grew quite dusky, causing confusion and raising alarms at the orphanage. When I met her 20 years later, my biological mother informed me that she’d thought I would “have a better life” with a white family. I guess she was forgetting that anybody who was adopting children, no matter their background, would have to have been financially secure enough to do so.
Being half-black in a black family was a nonissue. Being loved was paramount. Ironically, the better life my biological mother had wanted for me came easily and unconditionally through people who were not white. But the undeniable fact remains that she automatically discounted blackness as a viable option, even though she had loved and created me with a man of color. That weird disparity, the contradictory concepts of America’s founding, had taken seed, tunneling deep into the country’s psyche and creating a conflicted mindset, a stupefying Rubiks cube, which our nation still grapples with today.
By 1962, my father had been practicing dentistry for many years, but blacks wouldn’t be accepted into the National Dental Association until 1963. Eleanor Roosevelt was disappointed. J. Edgar Hoover postulated that she had “Negro blood” which motivated her “perverse behavior.” The thrill of $3,450 houses and amazingly cheap coffee aside, it was a strange time, indeed, when someone’s altruism could actually be interpreted as hostile or depraved. This was the woman who took the time to speak to my father on a train one afternoon in 1944. It was a different world. But for him the encounter still sings, sustaining its melody for 70 years. This was due not only to a mutual moment of recognition but also because the subtext brimmed with intention undeniably more expansive than that meeting, that conversation, that moment.
Which brings me back to the beginning and Octavia Butler’s blurb: Are all humans bigots, or are all bigots human?
Obviously the question isn’t simply aimed at America. Nevertheless, if our country was a quilt, race relations would be the thread that purls its borders. Perhaps the idea of America can be summarized in that blurb not because of a potentially troubling conjecture but instead because of an inherent optimism and potential for open-mindedness. The built-in hope that softens this country’s failings by counteracting with periodic greatness.
Lately it’s been much more difficult to absorb that optimism as more and more of the police force’s and even many state’s politicians’ MOs have come to light. But if I were to stay on track and finish my thought, just for the sake of argument, in a microcosm, my dad is simply a Boston boy who done good, but in a macrocosm, he and people like him are a representation of that elusive American hope–an ideal that we not only would like to reach but that we need to reach–courage and compassion expanding beyond one afternoon on a train, beyond ourselves, galvanizing us to be more: More reflective. More intuitive. More compassionate. More inclusive. More than we are. More.
More than human.