Wednesday, 26 March 2008
It's Been A Long Time
I've been feeling nostalgic of late. It could be because of my mother's ill health. It could also be because I've been watching a TV series called Mad Men, about men who worked in advertising on Madison Avenue in the 60s.
This series -- set in 1960, the year I was born -- amazes and amuses me with its attention to detail. The hair, the clothes, the cars, the kitchens, even the pillowcases on the kids' beds all take me back to my childhood. It highlights the racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism that was rife in those days, and you just know there's going to be a bra burning once the secretaries and housewives take off their girdles.
Barack Obama's beautifully eloquent speech about racism also has made me think about the 60s, or my experience of the 60s.
The Florida I was born into in 1960 was a different place to the Florida of today, or even the Florida of 1970. In 1960 air conditioning was still a luxury. Schools were still segregated. There were still separate drinking fountains for white and black people, separate restrooms, separate entrances to the big department store downtown, separate beaches, separate motels. The only black people I came into close contact with were the maids who worked in my and other people's homes and our mailman.
This is how cocooned I was: I didn't even know about the 1967 race riots in Tampa till I was an adult. Tampa was no stranger to racial and cultural diversity. There was a strong Cuban/Hispanic community that had been there a long time, brought to Florida by the cigar trade. More Cubans moved there in 1959/60 after the Batista regime was overthrown by Fidel Castro.
In my previous post I mentioned neighbors who were Cuban. This was not usual. Though there was a sizeable Cuban/Hispanic population, they tended to live in another part of town. Tampa was a sleepy port town that saw ships come from all over the world to fill up with phosphate and to bring bananas and other goods. Still, it was Southern at its core, with all the good and bad connotations that has. Country clubs excluded blacks as members (though quite happily employed them) and only one allowed Jews. Business and society were run by an old-boy network of Southern "gentlemen," who every year would dress up as pirates for the Gasparilla Day celebrations and parade drunkenly through town. Their daughters would be elected to the various society "courts," their wives would belong to the Garden Club or Women's Club or Junior League. Their sons would join something called Merrymakers.
They were polite and friendly yet somehow aloof to the outsiders who had moved to their town as it grew explosively in the 50s and 60s. They knew their place in the world, and they knew everyone else's as well.
How did all these different cultures rub together then? Well, not too well in some cases. Take our Cuban/Spanish neighbors as an example. From them I learned the hierarchy of the Hispanic world. Those born in Spain were at the top, those born in Cuba further down, how far down depending on the color of their skin. Dark-skinned Cubans were much further down the totem pole than light-skinned Cubans. Jews were below Cubans, and blacks were at the bottom.
Still, racism wasn't just in the South. When we visited my grandparents in Wyoming in the summer, I learned about a different kind of racism -- against Native Americans, or Indians as they were called then. My grandpa, whom I loved dearly, nevertheless had some less than complimentary things to say about members of the local tribe.
The Civil Rights Act, desegregation, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson all changed the Tampa of the 1960s. I remember distinctly the first time I ever saw a mixed-race couple -- in 1970 in downtown Tampa across the street from the movie theater I was about to go into. Yes, I turned and stared. The woman was blonde and wore a poncho, the man had a medium-size Afro. That I remember that much detail all these years later says a lot.
I enjoy Mad Men, though it also makes me cringe. I know what comes later. I know most of those couples will divorce, the men may die of heart attacks brought on by too many cigarettes and too much booze. Blacks and Jews will not only move into their offices, but will be their bosses. The women will discover careers. Their daughters will be the first Super Women to have it all, and their granddaughters will be the first to realize they can't have it all.
The 60s were a great decade for change. The Tampa I visit today is barely recognizable as the one I grew up in. Those society barons have died out and their children displaced by a new influx of powerful residents.
It all looks so easy from here, but it must have been such a great struggle to make people change back then. I don't think that struggle should ever be taken for granted.