Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Solace by Anecdote

For those who love their country, a group that I believe includes the majority of my compatriots, we have fallen upon hard times.  The naively patriotic celebration of the Fourth of July characteristic of my years in elementary school is a thing of the barely memorable past; but most of us nonetheless have a benign awareness of a holiday that arrives with the really hot weather and legitimates if it doesn’t actually require firing up the backyard grill.  This year, however, the associations most likely to stay in the mind are those of racial tension, racial violence, and an endless outpouring of hasty opinion, ludicrously referred to as a “conversation”, that coheres only in the utter certainty of each contributor concerning the correctness of the views expressed.

Is the nation doomed to endless racial discord?  If your perspective is that of hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week, it might well seem so.  But education, and education’s important enabler, advancing age, might suggest something more hopeful.  Among the more politically incorrect attitudes one can express on an American college campus is that in the long run things have improved dramatically and are continuing to improve even now.  The thing is, which are you going to believe: “studies” by politically partisan sociologists or your own lying eyes?  If you elect to go with your own eyes you are of course going to be dependent on the “anecdotal” evidence of your personal experience, a social-scientific no-no.  Even so, as Galileo once remarked, anecdotally, eppur si muove.  My anecdote will concern my fiftieth high school reunion, which took place quite a while ago, in 2004.

            My years of public primary and secondary education were disrupted by my father’s peripatetic work, which took him for relatively short stays over wide swaths of the South and West.  In my junior year (1952-3) the family relocated, briefly, to a small oil refinery town in East Texas.  That is where I graduated from high school, though my family had already moved on again, and I was boarded with friends.  This town had a sizable black minority, with which I had practically no contact whatsoever.  The schools were racially segregated, and the black high school, separate and palpably unequal, was out of mind as well as out of sight.  Otherwise the place was pretty much like the “Anarene” of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, though a bit larger.  I hated it, and I loved it.

I graduated in the late spring of 1954.  The date that the Supreme Court ruled in the case of “Brown vs Board of Education” was May 17, 1954, three days before my eighteenth birthday.  The issue was hotly debated among my peers, and the decision approved of by but a few.  I went off to college in Tennessee, an act already culturally transgressive.  Within months I had fallen out of correspondence with my two or three closest high-school companions, people I would have thought would remain bosom friends for life, and who under less remorseless geographical circumstances almost certainly would have.  Every “now” has its “fierce urgency,” and never more so than in the years of youth, so crowded with novelty, challenge, and opportunity, and so bereft of steadying perspective.  One thing led to another.  I went abroad for further study.  I married a foreigner.  I began a family and a career “in the East”—like Jay Gatsby!  I never returned to Texas, except much later, to give lectures in urban academic settings.  But the long reach of the Class of ’54 Planning Committee tracked me down, and I had no hesitation in signing up for the Fiftieth Reunion.  I flew to Dallas and rented a car.

I had a ball, but I want to keep the focus on the racial theme.  The town had probably doubled in size.  There was a big new high school.  I could not even find my old house or church.  I remembered many, perhaps even most of the classmates who showed up; and I was forced to contemplate the unequal ways in which age ravages men and women.  There were a couple of professionally impressive classmates.  One had been the head of the Texas Wildlife Commission.  Another was married to the former lieutenant governor of the state!  But we were as lily-white a group as we had been when we stumbled across the stage in 1954, only maybe now calla lily gray.

Public secondary education in Texas is, generally speaking, an extension of the football team.  Naturally the reunion was built around the Homecoming game, and attendance at it was naturally de rigueur.  The Reunion Class had special seating, and we were repeatedly mentioned by the announcer on the loudspeaker.  I personally was singled out as “the only Rhodes Scholar to come out of Titus County”.  The stands went wild.  I’d be being disingenuous if I denied being tickled pink.

But I want to tell you about what was happening on the field.  What was happening on the field was the home team’s largely black backfield running, passing, and punting to the enthusiastic applause of a seriously interracial crowd.  Then there was the half-time “show”: a really challenged wind section and about three dozen high-stepping majorettes in satin and sequins, though mainly leg.  I could not fail to note that many of them seemed to be Latinas.  I don’t remember much of a Hispanic population in this place fifty years ago.  That seemed to have changed.  Fifty years earlier the ne plus ultra of social success and “popularity” for high-school males was prowess on the gridiron.  For high school females it was being in the cheerleaders’ peep show.  I saw no evidence that that had changed, but a lot else had.