I’ve often wondered why my class in high school was the one to break out of racial and ethnic prison. I’ve thought about it a lot. Why then? My older brother graduated in 1956, only three years before me, but the dividing line between his class and mine was noticeable. I think the Hippy movement began in 1959.
I don’t speak for the whole class, but I and my friends suddenly noticed that we could count on one hand the number of Black students in our college track classes. (I didn’t have to do a damn thing to get into college track classes.) We might as well have called them the Black Track and the White Track. The only time we met our Black classmates was in gym. The system had been in place for many years, but our discomfort with it was new. Our parents were uneasy at our rebellion; rock ‘n roll frightened them, young men in long hair looked freaky. In their unease, they made stupid remarks and silly rules.
The cultural ground had been softening for decades. We all knew of Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, and a lot of famous Black people, but they weren’t integrated into our lives. I was shaken to my toes by the Whites Only signs in Memphis. Believing something and living it out are two different things.
The difference between reading things in the newspaper and real life was Broadway. In Showboat, a Broadway music by Jerome Kern, a popular chanteuse, Julie, is forced to renounce her happiness and success when others learn that she has “a drop of Negro blood.” Julie felt real to me. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific tells the story of a young American Lieutenant stationed on a Pacific island in the Second World War who falls in love with a young woman from the island, and that love is also considered illicit. He sings: You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/of people whose eyes are oddly made/or people whose skin is a different shade…You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/Before you are six, or seven, or eight/to hate all the people your relatives hate. I remember how struck I was when I first heard that song. In a single moment, it broke open the clichéd views I’d been raised with.
Rent and La Cage aux Folles blew open other doors, and I entered a new room filled with the gay and lesbian folk who had always been there but whom I hadn’t seen before.
There was comfort and security in the rooms I lived in as a child, and it has taken me a while to feel equally comfortable and secure in the new spaces. It is the empathy that filled me watching Showboat, South Pacific, Rent, and La Cage aux Folles that made new spaces beautiful instead of threatening.
Mrs. Doubtfire nudged open the door behind which live transgender people. Mrs. Doubtfire wasn’t transgender, but she made it comfortable to call a man a “she,” and showed how superficial gender tropes are. That space has not settled down yet, but I hope it soon will.