I am white woman who grew up in a series of small, almost entirely white towns. I attended a homogenous high school and a pretty homogenous college. My childhood hero, Kirby Puckett, was black, but maybe because he was only about two inches tall on his baseball cards, it never occurred to me that he was a difference race. I just didn’t see it. This isn’t a case of charming “race blindness” that we all hope little kids have. It was a stereotypical case of a small brain rationalizing new information in its own little limited context.
The first time I truly understood there were different people in the world wasn’t because I met them in person – that came later – but because I heard them. Sly & The Family Stone’s calmly resigned, melancholy version of the Doris Day’s chipper “Que Sera Sera” was an undeniable clue that my worldview was an exception to the norm. Doris’s “Que Sera Sera” was indefatigably hopeful because it was founded on the certainty that it was the way of her world for things to work out for the best. As I was the white daughter of two upper middle class parents, living in a safe neighborhood, the “whatever” that “will be” in my life, too, was pretty much guaranteed to be one of a selection of good options. I hated Doris’s song because it was too treacly, not because it wasn’t true.
Doris Day’s version came out in 1948, three years after America had emerged victorious from World War II with a strong economy. Things were on the up and up. 1948 also marked two fundamental milestones for civil rights. In February, Truman sent a letter to Congress on the issue of the rights of African Americans, the first sitting president in history to address the issue. His letter recognized cracks in the social contract that had been there for centuries:
“Today, the American people enjoy more freedom and opportunity than ever before. Never in our history has there been better reason to hope for the complete realization of the ideals of liberty and equality. We shall not, however, finally achieve the ideals for which this Nation was founded so long as any American suffers discrimination as a result of his race, or religion, or color, or the land of origin of his forefathers. Unfortunately, there still are examples—flagrant examples—of discrimination which are utterly contrary to our ideals. Not all groups of our population are free from the fear of violence. Not all groups are free to live and work where they please or to improve their conditions of life by their own efforts. Not all groups enjoy the full privileges of citizenship and participation in the government under which they live.”
And, five months later, Truman signed an executive order ending racial segregation in the armed forces – in the face of overwhelming criticism from the various service secretaries.
The following year, the number of lynchings went up.
In Doris Day’s America, there was already “complete realization of the ideals of liberty and equality.” In the entire United States of America, however, not so much. Twenty years and the birth of a movement later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated, riots would set major cities on fire throughout the country, and finally, public schools would begin to de-segregate. So in 1973, when Sly & The Family Stone reinterpreted Day’s message, it really wasn’t all that clear what the future would hold for all Americans. Would the country realize that it was fragmented into different pockets of affluence, poverty, and luck? Would it care? Who would help whom, and how? Would Dr. King’s message reach anyone anymore, or would he become a sentimentalized figurehead wheeled out every year so white people could express politically correct devotion to the idea of equality?
In 2008 when America elected its first black president, many announced that we were now living in a “post-racial America.” On the contrary: we have spent the last seven years grappling with why this still isn’t true.
In King’s words, “Whatever you do, you have to keep moving forwards.” Given we truly do have the power to collectively change our environments, we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to spend today in acts of service, yes, but also imagining what about the country we would want to change. Consider how we would unify the country that still remains a loose collection of affluence, poverty, and luck. And then, tomorrow, start moving forwards.