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The Illusion of Progress

Do you ever have dreams so visceral that it takes a while to get grounded in reality once you wake up? When I was about 13 years old, one particular dream seared itself into my memory:

I found myself in a taxicab, heading who knows where. I’d only been in two or three cabs in my entire life, so the fact that I dreamt of one was significant. The driver had a friendly and odd familiarity to me. And when he turned around to ask where he could take me, I instantly recognized him as my maternal grandfather, Papa Charlie, who had died a few years earlier. Except for one significant difference: he was black.

In that intangible, telepathic way we communicate in our dreams, I had a “conversation” with him, trying to understand whether it was really him or some kind of parallel universe doppelganger. Amidst the confusion, I gathered that he was doing a sort of penance for prejudices he perpetuated during his lifetime. He wanted me to know that he was okay, that he was learning.

When I relayed the dream to my mother, I remember her having an odd sense of satisfaction. For my mom, this dream represented a symbolic form of poetic justice for a wrong he committed during her childhood — one she made sure we knew about:

It was around 1953 on Chicago’s South Side. My mom and her classmate from Holy Cross Elementary School were taking part in the regional spelling bee, which was going to be televised live from downtown.

“Daddy, can we give my friend a ride to the spelling bee, please…?!” my 14 year-old mother pleaded, “Her family doesn’t have a car.”

“No, we can’t, honey.” Papa Charlie replied with a firm yet veiled tone of regret.

“But why? You know she’s my friend and we have room in our car.” It confused my mom, no doubt with a rising disgust for what was becoming clear.

My grandfather had to walk that fine line of hypocrisy, careful not to negate the Catholic education he paid the nuns to impart: “I understand why you want us to take her. And I wish we could, but we can’t.”

“But why not?!”

“It wouldn’t look right. People would talk.”

You see, this friend of my mother’s was African American.

The spelling bee incident left a lasting impression upon my mom as the way things should not be. She wanted her own children to rise above the prevailing prejudice in the world. And my takeaway as a child: Things had come a long way since the early 1950s. Yet had they?

We got so many messages from the world that this natural “division” was just the way things were. My family left the South Side of Chicago when I was four years old and we moved to Florida for my dad’s work. Whenever we visited Chicago, people told us it was too dangerous to drive through our old neighborhood. And “what a shame” that the South Side had become so crime-ridden after it “turned.” If enlightened conversations ever happened, no one included me in discussions about the fears or injustices faced by the people who struggled to survive in those “turned” neighborhoods. And not until I was an adult did the term “white flight” enter my lexicon of understanding.

The black/white divide in the world I experienced just was. Even our town in South Florida had its own, visibly impoverished, black neighborhood, ironically called “Pearl City.” Yet despite being in the South — or perhaps because of it — my Catholic school had no African-American children. So the opportunity never presented itself for me to learn whether my childhood had surpassed my mother’s experience of blatant racism.