Kathy’s mother: Kathy, where were you?
Kathy: I went to pick flowers.
Think of every stock photo and stereotype about 1950s and 1960s suburban America. Think about Dick and Jane reading books, gingham aprons, milk served in pitchers and cookie jars.
Think about kids lined up for polio shots, Ed Sullivan, and service station attendants wearing well-pressed uniforms.
It was not a complete fiction. I know. I was there.
But also – while you’re at it — think of whiteness, of blocks and blocks of white families doing white things, opening mail boxes to find magazines filled with stories about patio furniture and backyard BBQs and vacations in station wagons. And think of house after identical house, where any internal emotional turbulence or troublesome external social ferment could always be neatly hidden beneath the veneer of Cub Scout meetings, bake sales, and summer vacations.
Think of a whiteness so relentless that it was both everywhere and nowhere, pervasive yet so taken for granted that it could hardly be noticed. Imagine a place where you could come of age without ever seeing a black person in the flesh.
I thought of all these things – suddenly and without warning — in the middle of giving a lecture this Wednesday to 150 undergraduates about the rise of demographics, targeted media, and the death of mass circulation magazines. I talked about bloated audiences who, in their lack of demographic desirability, held no interest for advertisers starting to strategically target their messages. I thought of Life Magazine, on the verge of collapse. And I then I remembered the day that this issue arrived in our mail box.
Martin Luther King had been assassinated two weeks before. The event stunned and horrified us. I was fortunate to have parents who had taught my sisters and I about racial injustice. I still treasure the memory of one of my father’s finest moments when, hearing me utter an offensive racial remark at the age of eight, followed the charming fashion of the day and filled my mouth with a bar of ivory soap.
But we lived where we lived, and this magazine arrived like a live grenade. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, and now we had to look his wife straight in the face. We had to see her grief. Even worse, we had to contend with her serenity in the midst of the horror. We had to imagine her husband with his eyes closed, stilled and silenced.
I know that sometimes, in our zeal to construct compelling life narratives, we look back and overstate the significance of events. But I also know that nothing was the same after that magazine arrived. Our comfortable world had been pierced by the reality that rifles could silence a man’s passion and indignation.
There is no dramatic or profound ending to this story.
Nothing magic happened.
Miraculous revelations of tolerance were nowhere to be seen.
There was no justice and nothing was flowing like a mighty stream.
Our neighborhood stayed the same. Most people remained remarkably skilled at maintaining a willful blindness that obscured the anger and ferment brewing in distant places.
But never again could we claim, at least not with a straight face, that we knew nothing of that other world where guns were fired and justice denied. It arrived on the cover of a long-defunct magazine, and somehow we sensed that the dream deferred, festering like a sore yet so invisible in our blindingly white world, would soon explode.
For more than 10 years starting in the late 1980s at Hunter College, I taught a course called HIV/AIDS in Media and Culture in Hunter College’s Department of Film and Media Studies. Speakers included Maria Maggenti, one of the founders of ACT-UP and outstanding filmmaker, Bree Scott Harland of the PWA (People With AIDS) coalition, Rodger MacFarlane, the first paid executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and Craig Davidson, one of the founders of GLAAD and its first Executive Director from 1987 – 1990. Students in the class were among those attending Craig’s memorial service at St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Ave. when he died of HIV-related symptoms.
We examined many of the first attempts to make sense of the plague in theater, talk television, film, art, and print and television news. Highlights included Terrence McNally’s brilliant television drama Andre’s Mother, Keith Haring’s posters for ACT-UP, and the early episodes of the Phil Donahue Show that gave activists like Larry Kramer, Peter Staley, Ann Northrup and others some of their earliest wide exposure on national television.
One day in 1990, taking the #6 train up to Hunter, I discovered that the New York City health department had begun to use comics, drawing on the foto-novela tradition, to deliver public health messages about safe sex, condoms and more.
Perhaps some of you recall the saga of Julio and Marisol, whose love life amidst a plague played out in the NYC subway system. Beyond the brilliant use of comics, the series was especially important given that it was accessible to Spanish speakers and that the risk to Marisol was dealt with so prominently.
Risk to Marisol? It’s hard to believe, but in the early days of the plague all sorts of self-appointed and media-anointed “experts” were appearing on television talk shows minimizing the risk of HIV to women. Even more problematic was the fact that these “experts” often included conventionally trained physicians and scientists who were making inferences from data that were both astoundingly wrong and incredibly dangerous.
Those who don’t know the story of Julio and Marisol might be interested in these articles. The whole campaign ended suddenly, about 5 years later, in a sad example of what can happen when commercial considerations come up against an urgent public health concern. The new MTA policy of allowing advertisers to buy every available slot in a single subway car largely eased them out.
Like most early HIV-AIDS culture, people of color were latecomers to the dominant media narrative. This negligent invisibility, grounded in racist notions of whose lives mattered the most, is also part of the context in which Julio and Marisol surfaced.
But before their story ended, Julio and Marisol served as frontline HIV-AIDS educators, and even – around the time the series was about to end in 1995 – confronted death without flinching.
Damn, those were nightmare years.
This morning I was thinking about how quickly our culture anoints heroes. Some unspeakable act occurs and, in a desperate attempt to find a savior, heroes are selected and honored while the accused are demonized. In our infinite patience, we do this so quickly that medals are often presented before we even know exactly what the hero did.
Isn’t this backwards?
Doesn’t the magnitude of an act of courage only become clear with the passage of time, when we can look back and see the historical context in which an act was truly selfless? On the other hand, doesn’t time also occasionally reveal the self-interest and even selfishness that might have been the actual motive for an act initially hailed as courageous?
Here is my favorite scenario for what makes a genuine hero: A modest, decent person does something quintessentially selfless without regard for personal safety. Some people pay attention, but — for a whole host of reasons — the act takes place below the radar of public attention. Maybe the hero isn’t especially desirable. Maybe he or she is a member of a despised group. Or maybe the act itself is such a violation of current values that it is reviled rather than admired.
But then, as time passes, the magnitude of the act – the extent to which it fearlessly transcended the conventions of the moment — slowly becomes clear. And decades later we ask ourselves: How did anyone have the guts to do that?
And so I present my choice for a hero.
The 1955 murder of Emmett Till was a seminal moment in the history of the civil rights movement.Till was a 14 year-old African American from Chicago visiting his family in Mississippi. When he violated the unwritten laws of segregation by talking to a white woman, he was abducted and brutally murdered. Photographs of his open-coffin funeral, revealing an unspeakably savage beating, were widely circulated. Emmett’s mother Mamie became a passionate and eloquent voice for social justice.
My hero, though, is Mose Wright. Mr. Wright was Emmett’s uncle and a witness to the abduction. When two men were accused of the crime, Wright chose to be a witness at the trial and personally identified the two white defendants. At the time, observers at the trial could not recall another example of a black man testifying against a white defendant. Wright moved to Chicago, but once more – ignoring warnings that he would be killed –returned to testify against his nephew’s killers. He never flinched or hesitated.
Wright died at the age of 83 in 1973.
There is courage. There is heroism. There is selflessness. There is sacrifice. There is near-greatness. There is greatness.
And sometimes, there is a Mose Wright.