Optimism: The downside of perpetually looking on the bright side

Chapter 4 of Waking Up White.

What were some of the major economic, political, demographic, and pop culture trends from ten years before your birth until age twenty? How did they show up in your life? How do you think they influenced your beliefs?

The thirty years between 1934 and 1964 were some of the most turbulent, and, taken in a block, disjointed in American history. The time began as Hitler was rising to power in Europe. The United States was crawling out of the Great Depression. People who, until 5 years earlier, had been well-to-do found themselves facing debt and struggling to keep food on the table, much less their affluent life-style. My grandfather was a banker, and spent most of his emotional energy keeping up payments on the house that he bought in the first of October, 1929. The family never wanted for food, but they developed frugal habits that I carry to this day. My grandmother and even my mother saved, kept, washed, and reused things I throw away without thinking – like plastic storage bags. I’m not quite that bad, but I still have clothes that I wear many years after they have gone out of style. Mama was a teenager who had attended a private school until the fall of 1932. It must have been quite a shock for her to be thrust into public school at the age of 12.

Five years before I was born the world shifted – World War II began – at first only in Europe and Asia, but then in 1941 the United States was thrust into the conflict. The spending of the government for the war machine brought money back into circulation. Rationing was imposed, but the attitude of most people was that the shortages of things like butter and gasoline and nylons was fine – it was helping the country win the war. New people moved to town. My father was stationed at the ordinance depot near Texarkana. As an officer, he was welcomed into “society” and Mama met him when she returned to town after graduating from the University of Denver. They married in 1943, and, as I have said before, he was shipped to Europe in time for the Battle of the Bulge. I was born while he was there. I think of myself as the upper limit of the baby boom, and my outlook straddles the values of the Builder generation, and those of the Boomers.

With the return of the servicemen, the economy picked up even more. As rationing was cut back, new cars were produced, gas became available and inexpensive, many new housing tracts were built quickly to house the returning GIs. Radios played dramas, comedies, music, and other entertainment in homes. I remember listening to Amos and Andy, the Lone Ranger, and the Breakfast Club with Don McNeill. Newscasts on the radio brought current events into living rooms. Then – BAM – in the early ’50s, television burst onto the scene. We got our first TV when I was about 10 years old (the year the cable came to Houston). Now we could see the black Amos and Andy. Betty McDonald published The Egg and I in 1947, and Ma and Pa Kettle were introduced to the world. I read all three of her books when I was in high school and thought they were interesting, and funny. I recently reread them and I was appalled at her treatment of immigrants, and Native Americans, but obviously I didn’t think anything of it when I first read them.

In the second half of the ’40s and all of the ’50s, the country was mobile. Road trips were a thing. Families piled into station wagons and visited National Parks, the seashore, and distant relatives. I lived in eight different houses in four states between birth and age 20. Through my junior high and high school years our lives followed the Cleavers, Ozzie and Harriet, and Happy Days. Prosperity had returned to the country, and we could go to the movies, or a concert if we wanted. Elvis Presley appeared and Rock and Roll became king. Governor Faubus of Arkansas tried to keep people of color from integrating the schools in Little Rock. George Wallace called out the Georgia National Guard to prevent integration there.

When I graduated from high school I returned to the south to attend college after living 6 years in New Jersey. The Civil Rights Movement was just getting underway. The Birmingham Bus Boycott had happened as I entered junior high, but it never ruffled the surface of my life. BUT in 1962 the Birmingham Campaign began and RACE took a whole different place in my head. I met my future husband who, while three years older, was very interested in the marches and the struggle. These were the days of the beginning of Head Start, and black voter registration drives, and all the idealistic things that attracted me and the rest of the early Boomers.

Then, finally, to cap off this amazing, turbulent slice of history, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. All of us flaming liberals who had seen in him the possibility of power for our generation lost most of our hope. President Lyndon B Johnson kept up a lot of his ideas and ideals, but his connection with the old power politics depressed us, even though he pushed through the Civil Rights Act, as a legacy for President Kennedy.

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.

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