I do not think very many white people, myself included, really quite grasp the depth of emotion so many black Americans have toward the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate for president.
I do not think very many white people, myself included, really quite grasp the depth of emotion so many black Americans have toward the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate for president. Many years ago, however, I got a brief exposure to another world.
It was 1963, in what I now regard as the signal summer of my life. I had just completed my freshman year of college, and taken a job as a busboy at a family resort near the shore of Lake Michigan. Almost all the rest of the help were white college kids like me. The kitchen crew, however, was a black family who had worked at the resort every summer for years. When it closed in the fall, they would go home to Chicago, where they worked in another hotel.
The patriarch of the family, the man who ruled the kitchen and we all knew only as “Chef,” was a large man who looked to be in his 70s, though I think years of hard work made him appear older than he was. He was missing some of his teeth and had big gold fillings in the rest. He called us college kids his “chillum” and entertained us with bits of songs and funny lines of encouragement while we worked. Still, we lived in fear of Chef’s wrath whenever one of us would screw up an order in some way.
His wife and a granddaughter, whose names I cannot remember, took care of the salads, breads, and desserts. A grandson, Sam, was the dishwasher. He was about my age. Sam didn’t go to college, and I suspected that he had not finished high school, either. I was a huge sports fan in those days, and Sam and I would talk baseball. He liked the White Sox, and I liked the Tigers.
One of the perks of working at that resort was that in our off-hours, we college kids could enjoy the place. Management encouraged us to mingle with the guests and help them have a good time by taking them water-skiing behind the hotel boat, organizing softball or volleyball games, and so on. It was great fun.
However, I never saw Sam or his sister anywhere other than in the hotel kitchen or around their trailer out behind the work shed, where, unlike the rest of us who lived in the hotel, the family lived. Being the naïve kid that I was, I sometimes asked him why he never joined us for a softball game, or came down to the beach. All he ever said was, “Maybe tomorrow.”
Then, one day I casually mentioned to the resort owner that I thought we ought to try to get Sam out there. He looked at me a little strangely. “Some of our guests would be uncomfortable having the coloreds around,” he said.
I was appalled. I thought of organizing some kind of protest, like getting all the college kids to sign a petition, or even quitting and letting the guests in the hotel know why. All I actually did was tell Sam, the next time we worked together in the kitchen, how unfair I thought it was. He said nothing, and turned to his work. I never raised the topic again.
Something did happen, though. Toward the end of the summer, newspapers and television were full of news of Martin Luther King’s upcoming march on Washington. I decided to go to Washington and write about it for my college newspaper. This caused quite a stir among my friends at the resort.
When the day came for me to leave, I went to say goodbye to Sam and the rest of the family. They were not at their trailer, where they normally would have been at that time of day, so I went up to the hotel kitchen. Not there either.
I asked one of the college girls if she had seen them. She pointed toward the beach. There they were, sitting together in the sand. I did not go down to them. It seemed, somehow, that to approach them would be to intrude on something private. I just left. Two days later, I was part of the crowd of 100,000 people in front of the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C., listening and cheering as Martin Luther King told us, “I have a dream.”
I have no idea what, if anything, the resort owner said or did about the family and their quiet protest. The following year I heard, through someone else, that they were back working again. They still were not allowed to take a swim.
To most of us, that seems so long ago. The beaches are all open now, as are schools, colleges, jobs, and housing. Few pretend that racism has evaporated, but the country has undergone an amazing change in just three generations.
For Sam, “tomorrow” finally has come. I like to imagine that he was somewhere in the stands at the stadium in Denver for Obama’s speech on Thursday.
Dan Hall is the former editorial page editor of Messenger Post Media. E-mail him at email@example.com.