Think of every episode of Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best that you’ve ever seen.
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.