I WAS BORN IN 1956 AND CAME of age as the Great Society of the late 1960s closed. Author and scholar David Bradley defined that period as the "Years of the Black" in a seminal essay in the May, 1982, issue of Esquire. Bradley called it a "fascinating epoch" during which benevolent, wealthy and white liberals, driven by the guilt of their forefathers' sins and the rantings of Afro'd, heat-packing, shades-wearing militants, persuaded politicians and activists to swallow an expensive set of social programs meant "to conceal evidence of a scandalous past or present."
I have kept a clipping of Bradley's autobiographical essay--titled "Black and American, 1982" and subtitled "There are no good times to be black in America, but some times are worse than others"--since it was published. At that time, I was embarking on my career as a reporter at my hometown newspaper with the naive notion that my ambition and ability would carry me to unlimited vistas. I was convinced that someday I would respond to Bradley, challenging his pessimism and extolling my triumph. I would declare that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Great Black American Dream had been fulfilled in my generation. Mine would be the first in this nation's history to be judged "by the content of their character, not the color of their skin."
Sadly, almost a decade later, I must admit that Bradley, a professor of English at Temple University, was right to say that it is impossible "to give a socially meaningful description of who I am and what I've done without using the word black." This is painful, because it means I must accept his corollary: "Nothing I shall ever accomplish or discover or earn or inherit or buy or sell or give away--nothing I can ever do--will outweigh the fact of my race in determining my destiny."
As a child of the post-civil rights black bourgeoisie, I was a primary beneficiary of the protest generation and, therefore, among its most hopeful supporters. Today, we sons and daughters of those who faced the dogs, water hoses and brutal cops are turning away from our parents' great expectations of an integrated America. Many middle-class black executives are moving out of their corporate roles to create fulfilling jobs that serve black customers. Black colleges are experiencing a renaissance. Black organizations--churches, fraternities, sororities and professional groups--are attracting legions of new members. And, most surprising to me, upscale blacks are moving to neighborhoods that insulate them from the slings and arrows of the larger society.
Two years ago, I lived in the conspicuously affluent, middle-class black suburban neighborhood of BrookGlen, about 15 miles from downtown Atlanta. My neighbors were proud of their large homes and loved to entertain. One warm, summer evening, a backyard gathering fell suddenly silent as a car, marked with a local realtor's logo and containing a white couple, cruised slowly through the subdivision. Finally, one of my neighbors spoke up. "What are they looking for?" he asked bitterly. "I hope they don't find anything they like. Otherwise, there goes the neighborhood." The message was clear: Even affluent whites would ruin the sanctuary of our community.
Many of the black men and women who have come to accept this reality appear to fit neatly within the system among their white peers. They own the symbols of success. But deep inside, they are unhappy, knowing they are not accepted as equals by their white colleagues or acquaintances.
"This will be an ethnic party," says my friend Marian Holmes, inviting me to a dinner at her home in one of the few predominantly white neighborhoods in Washington. "It will be just us, no white people."
Holmes is no racist. Quite the contrary, she worries that her world is not black enough. Nearly all of her colleagues at the Smithsonian magazine, where she works as an editor, are white. She is comfortable with them, frequently entertaining co-workers at her home and being entertained in theirs. Even so, she seemed perplexed by her urge to host a dinner party of only black guests. It was something she couldn't remember ever having done, and now it seemed imperative. For the first time in her 42 years, Holmes was taking stock of the fact that being black was an inescapable fact of her life.
Perhaps, like me, it hit her when Jennifer, her 5-year-old daughter, began asking the tough questions: "Mommy, why aren't there more black people in the world?"
"That's an odd question for a black child living in Washington to ask," Holmes says. "But then, you know, it made sense that she would ask me something like that. There aren't very many black people in her world, which includes home, neighborhood and school."
Pam Harris, a 41-year-old accountant with an Atlanta real estate management firm and one of my Atlanta neighbors, says the folks who live in her BrookGlen subdivision are proud that their community is composed of black doctors, attorneys, executives and college professors.