GUEST EDITORIAL: Childhood experience puts inauguration in perspective
I want to tell you a story about an experience I had as a teenager in Chicago -- an experience that most people in northern Wisconsin would not have, but one that might help them realize what the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the U...
I want to tell you a story about an experience I had as a teenager in Chicago -- an experience that most people in northern Wisconsin would not have, but one that might help them realize what the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States means to millions of people in our country.
First, it is important to know that Chicago in the 1940s and 50s, when I was growing up, was very ethnically and racially divided. As fate would have it, my mother married a man of Italian descent and we moved from our home on the all-white south side of the city to Little Italy on the near west side. At the time, however, the city was changing and my elementary school reflected those changes.
I was one of very few white kids there, with most of the other students coming from homes where their parents had either emigrated from Mexico or blacks who had come to the north seeking work and more equality than they found in the southern states of America.
It was a fact of life in Chicago that nice white girls did not make friends with Mexican or black boys. Well, I did anyway. I'll never forget my stepfather's warning to me when a Mexican kid asked me to go to a local amusement park. "If you are seen with a Mexican, no white boy will ever want to be with you," he said.
Despite his warning, one of my closest friends at the Goodrich School was Sammy Lee Powell, a nice looking, genial and really smart kid, who happened to be black.
When we graduated from elementary school we went our separate ways, but a few years later we had a chance encounter.
I was about 15 years old and was walking down a busy city street with a few of my white friends when I heard someone calling my name. I turned around and, to my delight, I saw Sammy Lee. I shouted his name and ran to greet him. We talked for a few minutes, both of us obviously happy to see an old friend.
After our encounter, I ran to catch up with my friends and was shocked to find they were very angry with me. One of the, Rosemary, turned to me with fury on her face and in her voice, "Don't you ever do that again when you're with me!" she said through clenched teeth. I didn't understand her anger but, to my shame, I never did anything like that again when I was with white friends.
I am sure I am not alone. There's no doubt that many white Americans would not or could not acknowledge friendships or relationships with black Americans.
The millions of people from all over the world who gathered in Washington D.C. for the inauguration were wonderful evidence that the prejudices and narrow minded attitudes I encountered as a kid in Chicago may be fading away.
Positive changes are being made toward what Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed -- a nation where children (and adults) are "judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Kay Coletta is a long-time Lake Nebagamon resident, a former Chicago-area newspaper editor and retired Superior Telegram reporter.