Wedding Day 1955

Wedding Day 1955
David and Sally and the dress

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A WHITE CIVIL-RIGHTS ACTIVIST LOOKS BACK

Catching up with this much-neglected blog, I am going to post a few of my articles that have been published over the past few months. This one, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of a fair housing effort that I was deeply involved with back in 1965, in the height of the civil rights movement, was published December 2015 by The Pennsylvania Gazette, the alumni magazine of the University of Pennsylvania.

This past July, I flew to Chicago to attend Justice Day 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the North Shore Summer Project, a 1965 fair housing effort to challenge the practices that perpetuated housing segregation, practices that had been taken for granted for so many years. It led me to look back even further in time.

In the mid-1940s, at the Charles C. Lea elementary school in the Philadelphia neighborhood now known as University City, there were a few “colored” children (“African-American” wouldn’t come into use for some forty years), and I never wondered why none of them lived on my street. A few years later at the Philadelphia High School for Girls I became friendly with a few “Negro” girls, but none of them lived in my neighborhood, and aside from a couple of evenings when my mother invited some of them to dinner at our apartment, I didn’t see any of them outside of school. At Penn in the 1950s I can’t remember any students of color. No wonder: our 1955 yearbook shows only one black woman in our entire graduating class. It’s a snapshot of the times.

I never considered myself prejudiced, but I’m mortified to admit I was blind to the barriers that separated people by skin color. It wasn’t until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s that my consciousness was raised. I was horrified by the violence down South. But as a Manhattan mother of three children under six, I didn't feel I could go to Mississippi to fight for justice. When I heard about the New York-based National Committee against Discrimination in Housing, I realized that I could work for change in my own backyard. I joined the staff of the NCDH.

New York City had a fair housing law – but if people didn't apply for housing, the law meant nothing. I wrote "Neighborhood Profiles," describing areas of the five boroughs where few minorities lived – and which many nonwhite home seekers knew little or nothing about. We distributed these profiles and followed up with home-seeking families. Whenever minority applicant were refused, my anger helped me get through the process of lying to make my profile sound like theirs and to overcome my nervousness about testifying in court. I became more and more incensed that people should be treated this way.

Late in 1964, my family moved from Manhattan to Glencoe, a northern lakeside suburb of Chicago, and I met Philadelphian Bill Moyer, who was working with the American Friends Service Committee. Bill, a mild-mannered social worker, was a genius at organizing. “There’s just as much racism in Chicago as there is in Mississippi,” he told me. “But white people – even liberals – don’t realize it. We want to make them see it.” His idea was to launch an Open Housing movement in the thirteen almost-all-white suburbs along the shores of Lake Michigan by emulating the Freedom Marches in the south. He named this1965 effort the North Shore Summer Project, after the Mississippi Summer Project.

“Down South,” Bill told me in his soft-spoken way, “the movement is focused on voting rights. But these North Shore suburbs don't have to deny black people the right to vote – they just deny them the right to live here. Only two of these suburbs – Evanston and Glencoe – have real black populations. They also have real ghettoes to keep them in.”
The Quakers, Bill explained, wanted to expand white people’s knowledge of racism: “Black people don't have to learn about prejudice: they’re living it.” Bill’s sense of mission was contagious, and I enthusiastically agreed to serve as volunteer public relations director.

It was a heady time. I was working with representatives from the worlds of religion, civic involvement, and social activism. Because these suburbs were almost totally white, we had black committee members from only two towns, the Reverend Emory Davis from Evanston and Gerry Washington, a Glencoe mother whose daughters went to school with and played with mine. We met with realtors, conducted vigils outside their offices, and distributed literature about their discriminatory practices. We marched and we sang. We recruited college students to interview North Shore residents, who declared overwhelmingly that they would welcome nonwhite neighbors, despite the realtors’ contention that they were following homeowners’ wishes by refusing to show houses to nonwhite home-seekers. Our major coup was bringing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Winnetka, the whitest of these suburbs, to speak to a crowd of 10,000 on the Village Green.

I issued weekly news releases, was quoted in the local press – and received hate mail. Instead of intimidating me, it let me know that our efforts were being noticed and inspired me to become even more committed. (Of course hate mail in Glencoe was not as scary as hate mail in Biloxi.) Our final event was the August 29 six-mile march from our NSSP Freedom Center in Winnetka to the Evanston-North Shore Board of Realtors, where we presented a summary of the project’s findings at a rally, followed by an all-night vigil. Then the NSSP, which from its conception had been time-limited, disbanded. Our students went back to school, our AFSC sponsorship ended, and most of the volunteers moved on to other forms of activism.

Soon afterwards my family moved away from Glencoe, and I lost touch with my fellow volunteers. Last spring I reconnected with Carol Kleiman, another former Philadelphian. Carol told me that when she had told Dr. King she wanted to move from Glenview to an integrated area, he told her, “No, stay where you are. Lance the boil.” The “boil” was segregation, and a few results of that “lancing” can be seen in activities we set in motion.

Although the NSSP failed with Harriette and McLouis Robinet (a physicist then teaching at the University of Illinois), who were not able to buy a house on the North Shore and suffered humiliation while looking, they were energized to continue their search and did buy in the previously all white western suburb of Oak Park, where the family still lives. Harriette wrote about her family’s experience for Redbook, launching an award-winning career writing multicultural historical fiction for children.

David and Mary James’s North Shore story is more successful. The first African American to buy in Winnetka, David, a lawyer and former Tuskegee airman, founded a program for suburban and inner-city children, now a day camp for 7- to 12-year-olds. It was – and still is – infuriating to learn how hard it was for so many good people to do a simple thing like housing their families.

Fortified by the 1968 national Fair Housing Act and moving beyond educating the white community, Winnetka’s Open Communities now works to influence housing policy and enforce the law. At the anniversary celebration it sponsored, the crowd of about 1,000  – many of whom had not been born in 1965 – gathered on the Village Green where Dr. King had addressed the largest crowd ever to assemble there and pledged to continue the work.  The bronze marker memorializing him, installed with money raised by Winnetka schoolchildren, gleamed in the sunlight, heralding a brighter future.

But the wheels of justice still grind exceedingly slow. Even though in 1968 the national Fair Housing Act became law, many brokers have simply gone underground. The North Shore suburbs are still almost entirely white. It’s disappointing, half a century later, that there’s still a need for a follow-up to the push to open closed borders. I briefly wondered whether our efforts had had any impact at all. But then I reminded myself that change had occurred. That even when an ideal is not fully realized, our efforts were not in vain. Although the numbers of nonwhite residents in these suburbs are still small, they’re larger than they had been.


The biggest change was in us mostly white volunteers, who learned from our educators, the black volunteers and home-seekers. Working in the context of the society of fifty years ago, we morphed from white liberals to white activists as we realized that a new world will be formed in new ways. Many of us went on to work for change in many facets of society, including but not limited to racial equality. So yes, we can wear the sobriquet of “do-gooder” proudly. We did do some good – largely for ourselves, but also for thirteen communities. We will never go back to who we were before – just as the North Shore is no longer what it was. I remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”



Sunday, May 29, 2016

A NEW DOCUMENTARY ABOUT MASTURBATION – WORTH SEEING

Years ago, when I had just published my book about sexual turning points throughout life, THE ETERNAL GARDEN: SEASONS OF OUR SEXUALITY, I attended a conference in Philadelphia of The Society for the Scientific Study of Sex. I kept sporadically in touch with Martha Cornog, a fellow author I met there, and last week she invited me to go with her to the screening of a new documentary, called STICKY: A (SELF) LOVE STORY. The screening was held at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan – and I am really glad that I saw it.

The documentary, which took producers Nicholas Tana, Denise Acosta, and Eric Wolfson eleven years to make, offers a funny yet serious look at an important topic about an activity that practically everyone engages in at one time or another, but virtually no one talks about. The funny parts of the movie include clips from other films, many in the mainstream, some cult classics, including scenes like the one I once saw with Woody Allen saying that he’s in favor of masturbation – because that way he can have sex with someone he loves.

Some of the film’s more serious moments feature former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who was forced to resign her post because she said that sex education classes should say something about “the M-word.” Ironically, it was President Bill Clinton who forced her resignation. (He would have done much better in terms of his legacy and his wife’s to have indulged in this form of self-love himself instead of having led an apparently busy sex life involving other people.) Other interviews in the film featured religious leaders from the Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish communities, as well as a popular porn star, and my friend, Martha Cornog.

I wrote about masturbation in THE ETERNAL GARDEN as an activity that has an important role in sexuality from early childhood through late adulthood. It helps to soothe children, keeps the juices flowing for older people without a sex partner, facilitates artificial insemination, and provides a number of other benefits. It does not make hair grow on a person’s palms or strike them blind, despite warnings to the contrary! (And the young boy's plaintive question to his father,"It feels so good -- can I just keep doing it until I need glasses?")

You can get information about STICKY, including how to watch it (before it’s shown commercially) at http://stickythemovie.com/. And you can watch the trailer at  www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO5yqUIZR7g. So far there are only limited screenings, but I'm sure more will come. (No pun intended.)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

POSTING, BICYCLING, AND A RANDOM ACT OF KINDNESS

I cannot believe it has been seven months since I have written in these pages. But now that we are having true spring weather, I have resolved to turn over many leaves, and this blog is one of them.

I took my first bike ride of the season today. I was a little nervous because I had fallen about a month ago, just walking on the sidewalk, needed three stitches in my chin (Thank you, Urgent Care Doctor Anderson!), and bruised my jawbone so that eating became a work-out in which I convinced myself that the best thing for me was ice cream.

But I told myself I can't be afraid forever -- I have to get back on my horse. Which I did, enjoying the beautiful day and the view of the Hudson River, away from the Manhattan street traffic. But I was slow, and after having to get off my bike to pass a barrier because of ongoing construction work, I made my way back down to the bike path -- and stopped, wanting to wait to be sure no cyclists were behind me and I wouldn't be in anyone's way, either to slow them down or knock me down.

I was pleasantly surprised when a young man stopped his bike and asked, "Are you all right?" I assured him I was, explained why I had stopped, and thanked him profusely. It's so warming to know you're not alone in the big city, that there are people who will take the time to go out of their way to be kind. It doesn't take much but it does mean so much.





Monday, October 26, 2015

I GAVE AWAY MY WEDDING DRESS

On our second date both David Mark Olds and I knew we were meant for each other. So, in November 1955, after having known each other for all of one month, David and I decided to get married, and we wanted to set the date as soon as possible. At first my mother thought I was in such a hurry because I was pregnant. But when she did the math based on how short a time I’d known David, she realized that even if I was pregnant, I wouldn’t know it yet. Our timing had more to do with David’s employer, Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, which was about to transfer him from Philadelphia (where we met) to Cleveland (where we would live for the next three years).

Mom and I rushed to go shopping, and I fell in love with a “Mr. Mort” design on the rack in Bonwit Teller’s juniors department. I was 22 years old, a junior size 7. The dress, white wool princess line, ballerina length, sweetheart neckline and three-quarter-length sleeves, was perfect for a December wedding. It fit perfectly too. I loved wearing it on the Big Day, with the crinoline petticoat underneath that made my waist look so small. Not Scarlett O’Hara small, but small enough. And I liked the fact that it didn’t broadcast “Wedding!” so I would be able to wear it to parties and other occasions. As it turned out, the only parties I ever wore it for were on our wedding anniversaries.

That first year went quickly. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, living in my old bedroom with my parents for a couple of months while David started his new job and found an apartment for us. Soon after I joined him in Cleveland I found my first full-time job with a small advertising agency as receptionist/Girl Friday/errand girl/you name it. By the time I quit, just before our first anniversary, I had received some morsels of copywriting to do, but it never occurred to me to stay on and advance in the field. I was expecting our first child in a few weeks, and in 1956 I didn’t know any women who had children and continued to work at a paid job.

Being big with child, I couldn’t wear my treasured dress on our first anniversary, one month before the arrival of our first daughter. I did wear it out to dinner on our second anniversary, since the well-timed birth of our second daughter had allowed for that. And I wore it a couple of more times in the first few years. Life was full, our little family was happy, over the next few years I took a succession of part-time jobs and eventually embarked on a freelance writing career. Meanwhile, the doomsayers that had prophesied certain failure for marriage to a man I had hardly known and who was thirteen years older than I were proved wrong.
By the time our third daughter was born three years later, we had left Cleveland for Manhattan. David used to say that being a broadcaster was like being a professional ball player: If you wanted to move up, you had to be willing to move sideways. So we carted the dress around the country on moves to Chicago, St. Louis, and finally, back to New York.

Through the years I slipped back into the dress for several anniversaries, including a Hudson River cruise, the big party we threw for our 25th anniversary, and the more intimate black-tie dinner for our thirtieth. I was jubilant that I still fit into it, and I still liked the way I looked in it. The white wool had not yellowed over the years, and even without the crinoline petticoat (no longer the fashion), the cloth still held its body.

After almost fifty-four wonderful years together, David died. I wouldn’t be wearing the dress for any more anniversaries, and I couldn’t see wearing it for any other occasion. Yes, it was only a dress, but with all those memories it had become something more. So it moved with me to Manhattan from the Long Island house that I sold the following year.

I wasn’t ready yet to say good-bye to the dress, though. Although none of my daughters had worn it, by now there were four granddaughters. Maybe one of them might want to take it. I went to the closet and found that even after sixty years and all that schlepping around, there were no moth-holes, the wool still had its creamy white glow, the dress looked good. Just for fun (and self-knowledge), I tried it on. A miracle: I could still zip it all the way up.

But – and it was a big but – even though I could get into the dress, it didn’t look the same. While it was aging sixty years, so was I. And yes, there were those three childbirths. Time had not stood still. My weight may have still been the same, but my body parts seemed to have rearranged themselves when I wasn’t looking. Oh well, a granddaughter would probably look beautiful in it on her wedding day and might treasure its history of more than fifty years of wedded bliss (well, bliss most of the time).

But then I noticed something. The inside of the dress now felt like sandpaper scraping my skin. Whatever Mr. Mort had used to give body to the dress had been flaking away, and I couldn’t imagine anyone inside this garment for even the briefest City Hall ceremony. A friend said, “You could find a good seamstress to reline it.” And then the granddaughters’ mothers asked “How do you know any of the girls would want to wear it?” None were even close to saying their vows. And what if the weddings would be in 90-degree heat?
And so the dress marinated in my closet a little longer, and one day last week I walked it over to Housing Works, which sells gently-used clothing to benefit its charitable mission. I hope that someone good with a needle can solve the lining problem and that some winter bride can absorb some of the happiness I knew. Maybe it would be a lucky charm.

But for me it was time to let go. To let go of the dress. To let go of the past. To treasure the memories, but not be ruled by them. The Bible’s saying, “To everything there is a season,” told me that the season for this dress and me was no more.

This essay was published October 2015 by www.ThirdAge.com.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

BANNED BOOKS WEEK EVENT AT HOUSING WORKS BOOKSTORE CAFÉ


On September 29 a free-wheeling conversation took place at New York City’s Housing Works Bookstore Café with four authors of challenged books. The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) is a sponsor of Banned Books Week, an outgrowth of our first campaign against book banning in 1982.

This year’s Banned Books Week’s theme was Young Adult books, the most censored category. David Shipler, author of "Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword," moderated the discussion with David Levithan, author of "Two Boys Kissing"; Meg Medina, author of "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass"; and Coe Booth, author of "Kinda Like Brothers." The discussion focused on each author's experience being banned or challenged, and the importance of free and open access to all books, especially for young adult readers.

Why were these books restricted, undergoing “soft banning”? For Levithan’s books it was the focus on homosexuality, although some school districts and libraries that either didn’t buy the book or kept it unavailable often came up with other reasons, not wanting to be thought of as homophobic. For Medina’s novel it was the title although it didn’t include any word that hasn’t been said on TV. And for Booth’s books, which center on the lives of African American students, a common reason for not buying the book was a statement that a school or community had only a small percentage of nonwhite students or of students on free or reduced lunch plans.

Several themes emerged from the discussion and the Q and A period that followed, including:
• Should books be mirrors of the people and communities that students know – or windows, letting them learn about other values and points of view?
• Teachers and parents should use books to help students explore their feelings about issues, instead of ignoring them. This is especially important for YA readers, who are beginning to explore who they are – and who they want to be.
Shipler reminded us that Huckleberry Finn had been banned in some places soon after its 1885 publication, often because of its poor grammar. It has also come under fire for its use of the word “nigger.” Booth’s books have also run into trouble because of this and other racial slurs – especially among white teachers uncomfortable about teaching them. (I have trouble writing some of these words myself.)

Restrictions, or “soft” banning, varied in form. Sometimes books were kept out of sight or have to be signed out instead of being on the shelf. In one school a student who wanted to read a certain book had to go to the principal’s office to get it – at which point the principal could decide whether the student was mature enough to handle it. This raises two questions: How well does the principal know all of the students? And what kind of judge is he or she about the issues in a particular book, assuming she/he has read it?
So it looks as if First Amendment defenders still have plenty of work to do in protecting the right to read – and the right to write and be published.

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

I am now serving as the Interim Chair of ASJA's First Amendment Committee, which I have been a member of for many years. In 1982 when I was serving as ASJA president, we launched our "I Read Banned Books" campaign with a read-out on the stops of the New York Public Library, and we started distributing our "I Read Banned Books" buttons, which are still available today from ASJA. Unfortunately, censorship is still an important issue.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A SUSPENSE-FILLED PAGE-TURNER OF A TRUE STORY

I just finished a terrific book that I’m telling everybody I know about. The reader of “Survival in the Shadows: Seven Hidden Jews in Hitler’s Berlin” by Barbara Lovenheim is plunged right into the tense situation of the survivors -- and their non-Jewish saviors, who risked their lives to feed and hide their neighbors, and to help in other ways. Interspersed is some history of the era, with the many-faceted view it gives of “ordinary” Germans, many of whom behaved in extraordinary ways.

The author’s sensitive interviewing of the survivors and the rescuers whom she met many years later – and their keen memories for their ordeal – bring the reader right into this gripping story, which also has its moments of levity, like the time two of the women got all dressed up and walked into an SS Christmas party. They carried off their adventure so well that they had to deal with an unexpected dilemma: one of the SS officers wanted to walk one of the women home.

I’m looking forward to the dramatic movie that must put these events on the screen. Till then, readers are rewarded by getting to know these courageous and resourceful survivors and the people who saved them.

Monday, June 29, 2015

WONDERFUL WHITE DINNER PARTY

Amazing, the thrilling things that can happen in New York – just from paying attention! Two years ago as I was walking home to my Upper West Side apartment, I heard music coming from the outdoor plaza of Lincoln Center. I walked across the street to check it out, and I saw thousands of people in a sea of white – white clothing, white tables and chairs, white china plates. It was definitely – in 1970s parlance – a Happening. But what exactly was happening? Other than a jubilant throng of strangers having a wonderful time, dancing, laughing, eating, drinking champagne, waving white napkins in the air? I finally buttonholed a couple on their way out and learned that this was Le Diner en Blanc (The Dinner in White), an annual flash-mob event that started in Paris in 1988, has spread to more than 60 cities in 25 countries around the world, and was making its second appearance in New York.

I rushed home, found Le Diner’s website and immediately signed up online to receive notices of the next year’s event. And then life intervened and I forgot about it – until summeer 2014. Exactly two years later I received an email telling me I was eligible to sign up for the August 25, 2014 dinner in New York. I phoned my friend, Charles – no one can come to the event alone; you have to bring someone, anyone, any gender; we signed up and paid a $5 membership fee and a $30 per person attendance fee. We were lucky – the party was capped at 4,800 diners, and 25,000 people had to languish on the waiting list.

Getting ready for the event was a big part of the fun. Our instructions stipulated that everything had to be white – and elegant. Charles and I put together our outfits and accessories, buying a few items we didn’t have (thanks to the Salvation Army, the Dollar store, and IKEA), and ordered wine through the website (you’re not allowed to bring in alcoholic beverages). We could have ordered champagne: Moet & Chandon is a sponsor of the event, which is organized by Diner en Blanc International.

On the afternoon of the big event, we loaded up a hand truck with our folding table and two chairs, white china place settings, white table linens, real cutlery (no plastic or paper allowed), table decorations, and a picnic supper (although we could have ordered that too from celebrity chef Todd English), and took everything by subway down to our group’s meeting place at South Ferry. Other groups were meeting at various points throughout the city. Brandi Miller, our table leader, checked us in, took us back onto the #1 train, and we finally learned our destination: the waterfront Nelson A. Rockefeller Park in Battery City. It was a 15-minute walk from the subway, so we were glad we heeded the recommendation to wear comfortable shoes (which we were encouraged to trade for more stylish ones onsite).

The evening was magical, as we got to know our dining companions, set up our table according to a preset grid plan, waved our white napkins to signal the beginning of the event, marveled at a brilliant sunset over the water, listened to a young violinist wending her way through the crowds, and then danced to a live band.

We formed instant friendships with the people at the tables on either side of us. First, Peter, a dentist who had been with his table-mate, Richard, an event planner, for 18 years, said to me, “Oh, they put the seniors together.” (Although at somewhere around 50, I think, Peter could be my son.) It was a young assemblage, with most attendees looking to be 30-something, a few younger (all over 21 since alcohol was being served), and the rest in upper age strata. Sonia and DJ Chef (aka Marc Weiss) on our other side were celebrating their first anniversary, and Sonia kept taking pictures, inexplicably hiding her beautiful face with a “Phantom of the Opera” mask. After sharing our food and wine, we all toasted Gerry and Priscilla, one table down. After 13 years together, Gerry added to the evening’s sparkle by presenting an engagement ring to Priscilla. She said yes.

We all kissed and hugged when it was time to go home, saying “See you next year!” Throughout this exhilarating evening I never heard a voice raised except in glee, never heard a complaint, never saw a cranky face. With almost 5,000 New Yorkers! So miracles do happen.

This year’s Dinner in White will be held Tuesday evening, July 28. You may be too late to sign up for this year, but you can get on the list for 2016. Just go to: http://newyork.dinerenblanc.info.