Here's to the heroes who helped pave Obama's way

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009

I was in downtown Washington when Barack Obama was declared president-elect. Jubilant crowds of all races fell into the streets, celebrating with raucous joy. Inexplicably, I was numb, reserved. When I got home, I turned on the television and saw Jesse Jackson break down in tears. That's when I also broke down.

My memory drifted back to my childhood during the civil rights era, when my stepfather had a position as an associate professor at Washington College in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore. Then, Maryland's Eastern Shore was no different from the Deep South. The schools and public accommodations were segregated. White working-class people lived in tidy clapboard houses on side streets. White middle-class professionals lived in Victorian homes on the main thoroughfares. The poorest whites lived in trailers on the outskirts of town. And black people lived in a shantytown with no paved streets, and with outhouses and open garbage pits that smoldered with black smoke.

As we drove from New York, my stepfather, a civil rights activist, warned me not to adopt the racist norms of white children with whom I would attend school. My mother, who was born in Beijing, said he needn't worry that I was neither white nor black.

She turned to me and said, "Son, you are Chinese, born in America."

But being Chinese presented a quandary for the segregated school system: Would I go to a white or a black school? The school board ruled that because my stepfather was white and a professor at Washington College, I was to attend a white school. It denied my stepfather's request that I attend the white school one semester and the Negro school, as it was called then, the next semester.

That year, in sixth grade, I made friends with kids who didn't seem to notice or care that I was the only student of color. I thought my stepfather was imagining things or exaggerating until one day in music class we were to sing "Mammy's Little Babies Love Shortening Bread." The boys all sang "Mammy's little n------ love shortening bread," while the girls laughed. It was clear I was no longer in New York.

Later, two schoolmates and I happened to be walking through the shantytown when a black boy stepped in front of us.

"My name is Bill and I live here," he said.

He asked what we "white boys" were doing there and, when told we were walking through, said that we would have to walk around "on your side of town."

"What if we don't want to?"

Bill pointed at each of the white boys and said, "Then, I'll fight you. Or I'll fight you."

Then he pointed at me and said, "Or I'll fight you."

We left and walked around the shantytown.

When I told my stepfather, he asked first whether the other boys told their fathers. They were too scared to admit that they had backed down from a Negro kid, I said. My stepfather said that was good, because if they told their fathers, there would be trouble with the Klan. Then he said it would be nice if I made friends with Bill.

The next day, I walked alone in the shantytown. People looked at me strangely but did not avoid me. An old man approached me and kindly asked if I was lost.

"No, sir, I'm looking for a boy about my age named Bill."

"Yes, sir, I'll lead you to his home," the man said, as if he knew me.

Bill lived with his mother in a one-room shack heated by a potbellied stove. Inside were two beds, a wooden table and two chairs. On the wall hung a picture of Jesus. Bill invited me in and apologized for his behavior the day before. He said that I was "different." He didn't say how.

We talked awhile about our schools and the World Series. Bill, like me, was an avid Yankees fan. I invited him to play at my house the next day.

We were playing in the yard of the house my family rented on High Street when my stepfather approached us. He was white, over six feet tall, with slicked-back hair and a thin, Clark Gable moustache. He always wore a suit. He told us to stay right there and went inside. Bill was visibly shaken. My stepfather returned with two bottles of Coca-Cola. He never let me drink Coke. He told Bill he was welcome to come with us to the beach that weekend.

I thought Bill would be excited, but he wasn't. He asked which beach we would go to, and I said the president of the college had a summer home on the bay with a private beach. Bill politely declined. When I asked why, he said that he was Negro and the people there would be white.

But the people there would all be college people, I said.

Bill said, "You don't understand, Stu." He told me that white people would be white people no matter where they lived. "But, someday things are going to change," he said. "Change real soon."

A year later, my stepfather got a position at American University. Things would be different, I thought. We settled in Prince George's County, then a predominantly white working-class community. Segregation was de facto. White kids went to schools zoned for white communities, relegating black kids to schools in black communities. The high school I attended was white except for a handful of Asians.

In my junior year, 1964, before the Civil Rights Act was passed, the de facto code was broken. A black student named Dwight enrolled in the college-bound program.

Dwight was in my French class, a long class that broke for lunch every day and reconvened afterward. Dwight would remain in the classroom and eat a bagged lunch. One day, he offered to share with me. Thereafter I brought a bagged lunch and ate with Dwight.

The classroom overlooked the area outside where students smoked. When we looked out the windows at them, more than a few raised their middle fingers.

"I think I'm going to grab a smoke. Join me?" Dwight asked one day.

I was going to decline when I heard Bill's voice: "Things are going to change. Change real soon."

We went to the smoking area and each had a cigarette. As we left, kids flicked their lit cigarettes at us. On the way back to class, threats and racial slurs echoed in the hall.

I couldn't help thinking of Bill and Dwight on Election Day. As Bill predicted, things did, indeed, change. How soon they changed is relative. Barack Obama was born during those years, but an African American president of the United States is a historic first I never thought I would see.

The heroics and glory of those years belong to Bill and Dwight and all those who struggled for their people and struggled to make the United States a better place, what it is today. I just happened to be there, walking alongside them and bearing witness as we journeyed down this long, long road.

• Stuart Chang Berman is a screenwriter and the author, most recently, of "Potsticker Chronicles."

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