President Trump has fired off hate rhetoric at bumpstock speed throughout his presidency. None of it has been more ignorant than the shots he took at Baltimore in July 2019. The man knows nothing about the city he slammed. Least of all does he have any inkling of the love Baltimore inspires in its residents (of whom I am one), with its crazy quilt of ethnicities, cuisines, accents, and lifestyles; of grand architecture and skinny row houses; of Johns Hopkins and John Waters.
Trump’s derision of Baltimore as “disgusting” and “rat-infested” was aimed at Elijah Cummings, the late congressman whose district includes most of the majority-black city. It touched off my memory of a similar piece of political nastiness that occurred when I was a teen. In July 1967, the Johnson Administration brought a bill before the House of Representatives to fund federal grants to local governments for rat control and eradication. Republican congressmen railed against the draft legislation and treated the nation to a stream of jokes about Johnson’s “Civil Rats” agenda. This rarefied humor carried the underlying message that urban rodent and African American populations were largely indistinguishable.
Was Trump’s rat tweet, half a century after “Civil Rats,” a case of history repeating itself? It was, but not in the sense of events “rhyming” across different eras and historical contexts. The ugly racist words and deeds that we’re seeing from Trump, and have seen from too many others before, are more like America’s needle skipping in and out of the vinyl’s groove and replaying the same bar over and over. The needle was already starting to jump on this scratch when young men and women my age enrolled as freshmen at college campuses in 1972, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights advances of the Sixties. That was maddening enough. To have it still stuck at this same spot as you show up 47 years later must be dumbfounding to you.
How you should respond is not for older people like me to say. This “guide” is not offered as advice. It only seeks to recount how we got here, in terms that may surprise you and may help you see a way forward. Some of what I’ll say will have a personal cast and therefore a Southern one because I grew up in the South, with Jim Crow still in place. That’s largely incidental. Jim Crow was a regional phenomenon, but the dehumanizing of blacks was North and South, coast to coast. To a disheartening degree, it still is. So too is the dehumanizing of other vulnerable people, of whom the mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants from the countries to our south have been the go-to scapegoats during Trump’s tenure.
Years before my college acceptance letter arrived, my elementary school class boarded a bus and went on a field trip to another school a few miles away. The school we visited was run (like mine) by the public system of Forsyth County, North Carolina, but it was a special facility for children who were suffering from serious disabilities and congenital diseases. On arriving, we filed in, lined up in front of these stricken kids, and sang cheerful songs for them—show tunes and the like—spending perhaps an hour in what seemed to me less like a classroom than a small annex of Hell. Before us were misshapen children dependent on heavy wheelchairs and other medical equipment. Some kids opened their mouths to speak, but out came low moans or what sounded to us like gibberish. One girl had a head that seemed slightly too large, which she rotated continually as though it were a radar dish on a hilltop. She had three fingers on each hand, a deformity that filled me and my friends with particular horror. For months afterwards, we talked about her among ourselves when we were playing.
We didn’t just talk about her, we mimicked her as we remembered her, giggling while we stabbed at each other spastically with three fingers. The ugly mockery, of course, was a defense mechanism against the fear that we must have all felt at the very thought of that girl. I did, for sure. So much so that I can still picture her today and conjure up a little of that long-ago sense of dread and discomfort.
What was I afraid of, and why? It wasn’t the kind of fear I was used to feeling. She wasn’t frightening like the old witch—the one who lived in the basement of our house, behind the furnace, and came creeping out on long winter nights, disguising her stirring forth under the sound of the heat kicking on. That was the point. The little girl at the special school was real. When it came to her, there was no adult who would reassure me she was all in my imagination. She was just as real as the elderly relative whom my dad had taken me to see—an invalid confined to his bed in a no-frills nursing home. He lay there barely able to lift his head, his wasting leg muscles wrapped in thin yellow flesh like onion skin. The drab room smelled of cleaning agents spiked with some competing odor, probably of bedsores. As my dad told him the latest family news and made small talk, all I wanted to do was get out of there. Fast.
Afterwards I tried my best to shove that outing into the “do not disturb” part of my brain, where I stuck memories that I preferred not to poke. The dying old man, like the deformed girl, had no place in the happy-go-lucky life led by yours truly—a healthy, well-cared-for boy born into the middle class in the mightiest nation the world had ever seen, in the midst of a mushroom cloud of a postwar economic boom. Why did they have to intrude? I wasn’t going to let them intrude.
To live in midcentury America was to be under a sort of hypnosis, an ebullient trance. It was a time when Science, Progress, Prosperity, Government, Labor, and Industry formed an unstoppable American Dream Team, one that seemed to knock down another age-old barrier—technological, intellectual, social, or aesthetic—every week. It was a festival of supercharged confidence, as if payloads of optimism had been launched from Cape Canaveral on Saturn rockets to seed the atmosphere we breathed. Only if you were around then—and only if you were a child taking it all in with none of the acquired caution of grownups—can you understand how normal this uninterrupted, time-release euphoria felt and how fierce a grip it got on us, a generation that had never known anything else.
It’s strange that no convenient nickname exists for the charmed country where we midcentury kids spent our early lives—the America of Eisenhower, with its coda under Kennedy. My choice would be “Neverland.” In retrospect, the era seems almost make-believe—a storybook landscape of adventure and misadventure featuring arch-villains (the Reds) and looming horrors (World War III and nuclear annihilation), yet somehow utopia-like, especially for America’s children—lots and lots of children. Of course you have to understand that, at the time, Neverland was the present. We believed in it and rode our tricycles and bicycles in it, and we looked forward to our tomorrow. Boy were we gaga about our tomorrow.
You have your connectivity, your killer apps, your next big things. We had one big thing: The Future. The Future was the fixation of the era; it amazed and obsessed us like a comet that had come into view. You could make an argument that The Future, by 1960, was the first new religion to take hold on a mass basis in the Western World in two millennia. It was the blank tablet onto which Americans could draw their lives to be anything they wanted—Nature would not be allowed a veto. And we did. The Future was no mirage in the distance. We were walking right into it day by day, a place where Dr. Salk’s miracle vaccine was turning back the polio terror; where we were suddenly hearing about a marvel called Telstar, a little orb that beeped in Space and flashed data and video feeds instantaneously across oceans; where the clean split atom was replacing the smokestack as the source of electricity to toast our bread and heat our bath water.
Even the most ordinary things were evolving before our eyes into vectors of dynamism—coffee tables into boomerangs, roadside restaurants into space stations, wall clocks into star bursts, and the family car into a fighter jet. I actually had a baseball glove sold as “The A-Bomb.” (Yes, even weapons of mass destruction were sprinkled with The Future’s fairy dust as long as they were ours, shielding us from the Communist menace.) It was a world where everything was new and done in an eye-popping pallet partial to turquoise, lime, and tangerine. The Future was there on every TV channel, in every magazine, on every billboard. Makers of consumer goods competed to rush to The Future the fastest with the daring modern creations they offered—fashion, architecture, vehicles, furniture, cuisine. We kids could picture ourselves in no time playing mini-golf on the Moon’s surface. Back on Earth, we would live free of infirmity and poverty, hunger and war, and all the other miseries that earlier generations had grimly accepted. Work itself would give way to a lounge-like existence equipped with colorful consoles of buttons to fill every need.
For a clueless young boy, it was glorious. For a churning, changing society, not so much.
Neverland had a design problem. The Future was powered by The Past. It operated against itself, much like the standard refrigerators of the era that radiated heat up into the cooling compartment from their inefficient, bottom-mounted motors. To be a bonafide, fully vested member of Neverland, you had to meet a qualifications test taken straight from the very epoch that everyone imagined they were rushing to leave behind—the Twentieth Century’s chaotic first half. You had to be white, American, Christian (ideally Protestant), male, straight, and free of any handicaps or serious afflictions, whether physical or psychological. You could lack certain of these qualifications and, under the right circumstances, still secure Neverland’s privileges at a diminished level, the bronze or even the silver membership. You could, for instance, be Jewish (if you weren’t “too Jewish”). Or you could be a foreigner (only Europeans need apply; Anglo-Saxon countries preferred). Everyone knew the rules.
Women understood them best of all and, with rare exceptions, knew better than to push for gold status. A college coed (I’ll use the term of the day) seeking to compete in “men’s” sports? Or aspiring to find a job in the elite professions? Run for high office? Gain seniority at a brokerage house? Anchor a news broadcast? Conduct a symphony orchestra? Perform heart surgery? If she were to set her sights on such things, she would have to posses off-the-charts talent and navigate no end of practical boobytraps, one of which would almost certainly take her down. She would also be treated to Neverland’s killer condescension—expressed not with the graceless vulgarity of Donald Trump but with the affable one-liners of a Johnny Carson.
And if you were Negro? Well, you drank from your own people’s destiny, whose rusty pipes carried it into the run-down quarters in cities and towns and countryside where our elders had forced you to live. Neverland was not for you. You were red-lined out of it. You were invisible, at least as invisible as we could keep you. We wanted you out of our line of sight, on the other side of barriers physical, legal, and social. We wanted as few reminders as possible that such unfortunates existed in some squalid somewhere beyond the neat fences and serene side porches of our side of town.
Almost 60 years later, on the other side of the Civil Rights triumphs of the Sixties, the White Backlash, and all the good and evil that have ensued, it’s difficult even for those of us who were alive back then to recapture the mind set of those days. Now, white racial animus almost always expresses and perceives itself as disgust with urban violence, criminal gangs, dependence on “government handouts,” drug rings, riots, offensive street language, teenage pregnancies, and all the rest of it. But racial resentment of that variety is just the secondary infection, which took hold later. Racism as practiced in Neverland was something else entirely. It was a function of a long-standing white ascendancy that had the “coloreds” cowed and well under control.
Yes, black people made us uncomfortable, but we knew how to take care of that. We did it the same way as my friends and I took care of our anxiety about the little girl in the special school. By reducing them in our minds and in the society’s esteem to the caricatures that suited us. Blacks were servile, amusing creatures who should only appear in our world to do our bidding and entertain us—slightly updated versions of the old minstrel show performers. They were generally agreeable but could not be trusted to master their animal appetites and deserved none of the dignity and respect of real human beings. In movies, they were the whistling railroad porters and the ever accommodating valets. In our kitchen cupboards, they were Aunt Jemima, the happy black mammy, and Uncle Ben, the beaming butler, thrilled that they could please our palates. Among ourselves, they were “jiggaboos” and other names that made us smile.
This was racism’s primary infection. And it still exists somewhere in the hearts and minds of just about all of us former white kids of Neverland, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Wander into an antique store anywhere in America and don’t be surprised to find, even today, one of those grinning, watermelon-gripping colored boy ceramics. Why? Because they sell to Boomers. They’re the stock-in-trade of the nostalgia market, perfect touchstones of a kinder, happier time. The good old days, when discomfort with black people—and with the others who had been left out of The Future—was so easy to tame.
I say “we” used terms like jiggaboo (and worse). “Speak for yourself,” many of my white Boomer contemporaries will reply. In fact, on the narrow issue of derisive language, I wasn’t speaking for myself. Growing up, my family avoided racial and ethnic slurs. My father was a progressive Southern Baptist of a sort that existed back then, an FDR Democrat who became a wholehearted supporter of Kennedy’s and LBJ’s civil rights agendas. Dad was a close friend of an older neighbor of ours, an attorney named Irving Carlyle, who had been a powerful force in North Carolina’s Democratic Party. Nothing ever impressed Dad about anyone more than what this man had done in 1954. In the spring of that year, Carlyle was in line to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate after the incumbent’s death in office, but in a courageous act of conscience and political hari-kari, he delivered a stunning speech to the party’s state convention declaring his support for the Supreme Court’s just-issued decision in Brown vs Board of Education, the landmark ruling against school segregation. Political oblivion inevitably followed. (The interim Senate seat instead went to Sam Ervin, later of Watergate fame, who was a segregationist.)
Carlyle was the kind of role model that my parents held up, a fair illustration of the type of home ours was. And I’m glad of it. I’m not glad, however, that I therefore imagined throughout the Sixties and beyond that I was no racist. Of course I was. Racism had been baked into me by the culture. When my pals and I stood in line outside the Saturday morning kiddie shows at the movie theater in downtown Winston-Salem, a huddle of black children sometimes could be seen waiting at their separate, dingy side entrance leading up to their separate, cramped seating area above the balcony. Did I hate them? Revile them? Resent them? Absolutely not. I didn’t give them a second thought. My attention was on my friends and the Jerry Lewis feature we were about to see, with a stop at the candy counter first. Those black kids barely existed. They were shadow creatures. Maybe they were human, but it was a lesser kind of human no one wanted to be. A mentality like that doesn’t go away easily, no matter what politicians you back or ideological hat you wear as an adult.
When the end came, Neverland’s demise was nothing if not spectacular. There had been warning signs, especially in the South, where sit-ins and other protests infuriated a white population dead set on saving its backward-facing civilization from the specter of Negro equality and race-mixing. Things took a ghastly turn in September 1963 when Montgomery’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was firebombed, cremating alive four beautiful little black girls in their Sunday finery. Then, two months later, shots rang out from a book depository in Dallas. The President himself had been assassinated in his motorcade as he visited the city.
These were the opening chords to a scherzo of American violence. The Space Age showpiece that was the New York World’s Fair of 1964 had to accept a twin billing with lethal “race riots” in Harlem and Brooklyn. The Negro Intifada spread rapidly, visiting Philadelphia, Jersey City, Rochester, Chicago. Soon the flames engulfing the Watts ghetto in Los Angles leapt from one American city to another, a weird wildfire blown by economic desperation across the dry understory of the segregated wards. On the far side of the Pacific, the jungle along the Ho Chi Minh Trail burned just as hot. Dead GIs were air-freighted from Vietnam as routinely as cheap electronics and ladies shoes are today. Freedom Summer workers registering black voters in Mississippi disappeared, their remains eventually found in the earthen dam where they had been buried by their abductors, a mix-and-match execution squad of Ku Klux Klan, local sheriff, and police. More gasoline bombings of black churches across the South underscored the point.
The beat went on. The massive Tet Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies gave the lie to the Pentagon’s assurances that the meat-grinder of combat was achieving anything. In Memphis, Dr King was picked off by a sniper, followed quickly by the close-range shooting of JFK’s brother Bobby in Los Angeles. The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was a brawl in a cartoon frame—a swirl of fists, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, truncheons, K9 dogs, water canons, and bloodied youths denouncing the war. The punchline was Richard Nixon, come November. The Armed Services lay siege to college campuses, where anti-war protesters were lucky if they faced only fixed bayonets. At Kent State, the Ohio National Guard fired live ammunition at unarmed students for the crime of demonstrating against U.S. bombing of neutral Cambodia. Over a dozen were hit; four died.
The Future was done. The American electorate traded it in for Law and Order.
Enter my freshman class in the fall of 1972. Demographically, we were the cream of Neverland’s crop, most of us born in the Baby Boom’s peak year, 1954. Now we blinked non-comprehendingly at what had happened, shaken up and unsure about what came next, but wild and resilient. “Sympathy for the Devil” played over and over from open dorm windows that warm freshman week. Off we went to our first semester classes, walking or bicycling under the canopies of old campus trees that soon turned yellow and red. Like a silent overnight snowfall, the days accumulated into months, and month into years. A little bemused, we found ourselves appearing with all the other graduated classes in the alumni magazine. Unimaginably quickly, we’re reading about you, the incoming class of 2023. The Sixties are a long time ago. Neverland is just another subject area for dissertations in history departments.
Only it’s not.
As you start your college lives, you’re cringing at the state of our national politics just as you’re qualifying to become full participants in it. If polls and surveys are to be believed, a strong majority of you and your generational peers loathe the current occupant of the White House. You deplore his indecency and corruption, his habit of casually cocking his middle finger at the truth, his crude celebration of sexual violence and ethnic divisions, his subversion of our country’s standing in the world. You cannot comprehend where his support comes from. How can his “base” abide such a leader, much less exult at his sickening self-promotion and cheer his determination to poison the national well with ethnic rancor and pull down the foundations of our democracy?
The answer you usually hear focuses on emerging forces dubbed “populist,” “nationalist,” “nativist,” or, in the ugliest form, “white supremacist.” All of which muddies a simpler reality. It’s true that Trump only slipped over the top in 2016 (in the electoral college) because of the votes of people to whom such labels apply—people of the sort you see in television coverage of MAGA rallies, often wearing faces twisted with anger and shouting “Send her back!” or some other invocation of the worst in America’s past. But the great mass of Americans who put Trump in the White House are not like that. They’re everyday Republican voters, typically white and older (Boomer), and more likely to be male than female. They’re not screamers, certainly not latter day Night Riders. They slip into their comfort-fit waistlines in the morning, walk their dogs, do their chores, and maybe go to a church event or a grandchild’s soccer game. They’re the same Republicans who cast their ballots for Romney and McCain and, before that, George W. Bush with his “compassionate conservatism” (a compassion Bush especially wanted to direct towards undocumented immigrants!).
Ask them and, chances are, they’ll tell you they don’t care for Trump but voted for him anyway because he is advancing conservatives principles. The m.o. of the President—courting neo-Nazis, pulling off the old scabs of racial enmity, demeaning women—isn’t their thing. Hate isn’t their thing. What is their thing? We all know by now that the answer “conservative principles” is a dodge. Deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility? Christian values? Open markets and free trade? Strong American leadership in the world? Under Trump? LMAO.
The real answer is love. Their thing is love. A deep and abiding love. A love that they cannot and will not let go. They are still carrying a torch for Neverland. It may have disappeared into the whirlwind a half century ago, but they have nursed an aching longing for it all this time and will do so to their graves. They can still hear that sweet, postwar siren song of the Good Nation dominating the world economically, militarily, politically, and culturally while keeping its own house in harmonious order with a unitary value system and a social structure to match. And don’t knock it. Don’t knock it if you weren’t there with an entire population waiting breathlessly, as one, glued to radios and televisions during the countdown to John Glenn’s blast-off. That was Neverland. It was matchless American know-how mated with an indomitable American will to do things mankind had never dreamed were possible.
The last Republican leader to actually express the love was Ronald Reagan, before you were born. He did it many times, most famously in his Farewell Address, in 1989, when he rhapsodized that America was still the “shining city on a hill.” This was his benediction on the success he believed he had achieved in turning the country around—refocusing it, after all the misguided turmoil, and setting a course back to Neverland. If the idea sounds perilously close to “taking our country back,” well, of course it was. Reagan was a master of wedge politics, essentially the same wedge politics as practiced by the less genial, Karl Rove-tutored Republican politicians of succeeding years, devolving into the dismal cesspool that is the GOP leadership today. But Reagan was savvier than the Fox News generation of Republican operatives. He was not going to let himself get marooned on the political island of the haters. He cultivated the love. He would get misty-eyed, a lump in his throat, and pitch Neverland to perfection.
The white Boomers flocked to him by the tens of millions, still moonstruck, still feeling the old tug. Their childhoods in the 1950s and early 1960s had put the hook in their mouths and Reagan reeled them in. What a glorious country it had been—and could be again if only leaders stood firm and said “Enough!” to the unruly and the malcontent—the blacks, the women demanding equal pay and equal rights, the Native Americans, the Hispanics picking lettuce and grapes, the non-Christians, the gays, the environmentalists, and on and on. Why did these people have to intrude? We will not let them intrude.
It’s 2019. What should you take from all this? Mainly, a warning. Love is a far more durable, potent force than hate. Hate eats away at people and exhausts them. Love abides. It isn’t Trump’s howling “base” that should most alarm you. It’s the people who see themselves as (to use Nixon’s phrase) “the silent majority,” the quiet throng that pulls the Republican lever. They’re the ones with staying power. They’re the ones who have given us Trump, Trumpism, and (whether they knew what they were doing or not) resurgent white supremacism, with all that it has brought in its repulsive wake. And they will not change. Don’t kid yourself, you’ll never wake them from their Neverland dream or argue them off their Neverland cloud.
You have no choice but to meet them head on, take them down hard on the political mat, pry power away from them. Time is on your side, to be sure. Blessed are the midcentury’s children, for fewer of them shall vote with every passing election. But I doubt you’re content to wait until the drip-drip of time and demographics does your work for you. Let’s hope you’re made of better stuff than that. The moment is now and it’s your moment. There’s a fight to be fought. No one else is going to mix it up for you.
Whether and how you take up this challenge is for you to decide.
What about us white Boomers on the other side of the political divide—people like me, the recovering racist, who would rather cut off his hand than pull the lever for the demagogue Trump? There are quite a few of us, you know. What should you think about us? If Neverland’s magic was so irresistible, why are we any less captive to it than our Republican contemporaries? After all, the most beloved politician of the era, Jack Kennedy, was on our team, not theirs.
We do miss JFK and always will. If you want to stab us with melancholy until we nearly bleed out, just show us an old video clip of President Kennedy speaking to the press or the public, elevating that quirky Boston accent into something classically noble, standing handsome and self-assured, breaking into a broad smile here and there with his perfect timing and his incomparable mix of grace, eloquence, vigor, and empathy. No one can ever replace him. At bottom, though, we aren’t backwards lookers. We saw the mayhem that finally enveloped Neverland. It was as painful for us as for anyone. But we felt no compulsion to restore what was lost because we never really thought it was lost.
We just understood Neverland differently all along. It was never, for us, a consummated achievement—a society that had attained greatness and goodness, poised in splendor on the mountain top. For us, Neverland truly was The Future, a society that was busy doing wondrous things like conquering polio and going to the Moon but that also possessed the know-how and the resolve to do even greater things, like overcoming its past of brutalizing blacks, of keeping women cooped up and beaten up and knocked up, of holding down so many other dispossessed sons and daughters, and of pillaging the planet. Listen to the music of the mid- and late Sixties, the years when all hell was breaking loose. Listen to Aretha’s “Respect,” Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” Hendrix’ “Purple Haze,” and a thousand others. What an astonishing outpouring of the human heart, so simple and yet soul soothing, so searing in its agonies but so irrepressible in its joy. To us, that was still Neverland, singing right through the hard rain that was beating down, with no plans to stop.
George Angell, August/November 2019