Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Life and memory, a continuing story

Today, Bernie lives

I will be 67 years old in a couple of months. I am not feeling particularly morbid at the moment, but it gets easier and easier to count the number of my days. It’s reasonable to assume that I could live another 20 years—unless something unexpected comes up—and also reasonable to assume that I will be in decent health most of those 20 years. Beyond that point, all bets are off, and both disability and death will loom much larger.

But it occurs to me, in this moment, that the true span of an individual life includes the years in which others will remember the otherwise departed. My father, Bernie Epton, died in 1987. But today he is alive in memory. Mine.

Today is not a special day. It’s not an anniversary of anything that happened to Dad. But I have been reflecting on my own life, and on my children, and how we have lived, separately and together. One thought triggered another, and Dad was suddenly present.

Today, Dad is a young boy in Chicago, living through the Depression and writing his father in Atlanta. Not to worry, Dad, he writes. Do what you have to do in Atlanta. I will take care of everything here.

Today, Dad will drop out of school at the University of Chicago and enlist in the Army Air Force. Today, Dad will leave for an Air Force base in England, where he will begin leading bombing runs over Germany and Eastern Europe.

Today, Dad will meet Audrey Issett, a private in the British army assigned as a plane spotter with an anti-aircraft unit on the coast of England. Today, Audrey is a combatant in the Battle of Britain. Today, Audrey and Bernie will fall in love.

Today, the war in Europe has come to an end and Dad will be rotated back to the states for the invasion of Japan, which will never happen. Today, Audrey, pregnant with Teri, will finally make it to the States and meet the maniac in-laws who will be her family for the next 65 years.

Today, Dad will pass the bar exam and become a lawyer. Today, Bernie Epton will lose his first race for Congress.

Today, Audrey and Bernie and their four children will stop at Rosenbloom’s after going to a movie together at the Hamilton on 71st Street. We will order five hot fudge sundaes and one strawberry sundae to go. (“Teri, Jeffrey, Mark and Dale, they are simply full of schwale,” Dad will sing endlessly throughout our childhood, or at least until his oldest two become teenagers, and things stop being so much fun).

Today, Dad and I, divided by all the things that divide fathers and sons, will argue about the war in Vietnam. I will tell him that the war is evil and so are the war makers. I will not support the war or acquiesce to the domination of the war machine, I will tell him. And he will show me his multiple medals and insist that we owe service to our country.

Today, after being drafted, I will leave for Canada. Dad will be deeply grieved by my decision, but he will give me money to help me on my way. He will pretend the money was actually left to me by my grandfather, but I will know better.

Today, Dad and brother Mark will board a plane for Memphis, where they will join in solidarity with the Memphis sanitation workers marching in a memorial parade for Martin Luther King.

Today, on a visit home, I will knock on the door of my parent’s apartment. Home alone, Dad will shout “what’s the password?” the first phrase of a great Marx Brothers routine.

Today, Dad will pay for a naming ceremony at his synagogue for Nathan Nightrain Epton, my first child. Nate won’t be there. Neither will I. Nor will Nate’s mom be there. Dad will have Nate named Adam Nathan Epton because he doesn’t approve of the name I gave Nate, and Adam begins with A, the first letter of Dad’s father’s name. In the Jewish tradition, this is the way to name a child after an ancestor. Nate won’t care, at all. Over time, I will learn not to mind, either.

Today, Dad will retire from the Illinois State Legislature after 16 good years during which he only screamed in frustration at his legislative colleagues maybe a dozen times, okay, maybe a couple dozen. Today, Dad will stop saying he’s the smartest guy in the legislature. Today, Dad will stop saying he’s the richest guy in the legislature.

Today, Governor Thompson will call Dad and ask him to be the Republican candidate for mayor of Chicago, and run against whoever wins the Democratic primary, Jane Byrne, Richie Daley or Harold Washington, an old friend from the state legislature.

Today, Washington will win the Democratic primary and because racism will motivate many white Chicagoans to cross party lines in the general election, Dad will become the first truly competitive Republican candidate for mayor in decades. Today, Dad will try to explain to the media that his campaign slogan, “Epton, before it’s too late,” is not a coded racial message. Almost nobody will believe him, but he will insist that he’s right, they’re wrong and the slogan will remain in use.

Late tonight, after a long day of campaigning, Harold Washington will say to a campaign worker who has come to hate Bernie that the man they are campaigning against is “not the Bernie Epton I know.” She will be surprised by the depth of Harold’s compassion and his obvious affection for Bernie.

Today, finally, the race will end. Washington will win, becoming the first African American mayor in Chicago history. Dad will lose and begin lamenting the damage the campaign has done to his reputation.

Today, I will talk to Dad, who has woken up, as he does every day, feeling humiliated by his defeat and horrified by the belief that he is a pariah. I will try to tell him that the reality is not so awful as he imagines, but nothing I say will seem to help and the smiles seem few and far between.

Today, four and a half years after the 1983 election, and less than a month after Harold Washington died, Dad will die. Today, Dad will be buried in Oakwood Cemetery on the south side, where Washington is also buried, and where generations of Chicagoans, mostly African American and Jewish, are buried.

Today, more than 26 years after Dad died, I remember him. Today, Bernie Epton is alive.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Reparations: Ta-Nehesei Coates tells it like it is.

But plenty of folks will want to argue the point.

As the cover of the June issue of Atlantic Magazine advancing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument for reparations for African Americans puts it: “250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debris of our ancestors, America will never be whole.”

I’m with Coates. I believe that 450 years of oppression and expropriation of wealth requires compensation. Making the effort strikes me as both a moral obligation and a fantastic investment in our collective future.

Coates lays out the argument for reparations with at length. His piece is concise, but also a marvel of detailed reporting and history I won’t try to match. But I still want to set up some of the arguments against reparations that one is likely to hear, to try and wrestle those arguments to the ground.  I can’t help but think that there can be only a limited number of explanations for those that oppose reparations for African Americans. Included among them:

1.     Having grown up in a society that normalized that theft, opponents of reparations may believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, that they are inferior, and that they do not deserve relief.

2.     Opponents of reparations might claim that compensating for the generations-long theft of labor and wealth from African Americans will come at a direct cost to them, or that we as a society cannot afford reparations.

3.     Some opponents may believe that others have suffered systemic oppression and have not been compensated for their losses.

4.     Some people might argue that they (or their family) just got to the United States; they are not part of the problem.

5.     Some people may not oppose reparations, but they don’t believe it will ever happen.

6.     Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans or benefit in some other way from the continuing humiliation of the African American community. They will fight against reparations as hard and as long as they think necessary.

7.     Some politicians, who would lead the fight against reparations represent the interests of those who entertain one or more of the above beliefs.

8.     And then there’s Clarence Thomas (who arguably fits into more than one of the above categories), who even opposes affirmative action and claims to feel stigmatized by the policy, and who apparently believes that he has not been properly celebrated for his accomplishments.

African Americans’ problems are of their own making

If you are simply one of those who believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, or that they don’t deserve relief, or that they are in some way inferior, the problem may be that you simply don’t know enough black people. This would not be a surprise in a country as segregated as ours.

You are probably white, but you could still free yourself from that apparently limiting condition by expanding the same sort of empathetic response that you presently feel on behalf of battered women, say, or Syrians, or Rwandans or dolphins or puppies.

Or you could free yourself from the zeitgeist with the same act of political will and forethought that has already persuaded you that the 2008 stimulus package wasn’t big enough or that climate change needs to be addressed now. Regardless, if you even remotely agree that the wealth rightfully earned by generations of African Americans has been plundered, ask yourself who has benefitted from that theft.

Maybe, it doesn’t feel like you are one of the beneficiaries, but a lot of great fortunes were built on the backs of slaves and tenant farmers and convict laborers, and job competition between white workers and black workers that held down wages for all workers to the almost exclusive benefit of the owning class. Reparations are a way to begin repairing all those problems.

It will be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses.

Perhaps, it could be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses, but in general we should think of the cost as a legitimate liability, the settlement as a negotiated agreement that acknowledges responsibility, as a good-conscience effort to compensate the recipient without causing unbearable harm to the party wishing to make good, and as an investment in an egalitarian society that prioritizes equality, peace and harmony.

Besides, think about how much the lack of compensation for unrewarded effort, for theft, injury and harm, has already cost us. Reparations could hardly cost us more.

Others have suffered systemic losses and have not been compensated.

There aren’t a whole lot of people who would argue against paying reparations to African Americans just because some other group ought to get paid—though there are certainly a fair number of groups who have suffered losses. But it would be hard historically to identify a group that suffered more harm for longer. Working people come to mind. So do women. Central and South Americans. Africans. Asians. Lesbians, gay men and bi- and transsexuals.

There are certainly important considerations raised by this point of view, but, well…everything in its own time, I guess. Moreover, a society operating under an elevated understanding of justice that would come into being after reparations to African Americans would be a different world, which would be more prosperous and egalitarian. Under such transformed conditions some injustices would feel like they mattered less. And other legitimate claims would be more easily addressed.

Paying reparations would make recent immigrants to the United States responsible for the suffering of African Americans.

Well, we are collectively responsible. It’s our country. And you’re here now. What kind of society do you want to build? If we work together to restore equity, recent immigrants likely will prosper along with the rest of us.

Reparations will never happen.

Well, yes, in a country in which no-nothingism seems to define our politics, our African American president is the target of unreasoning hatred and right-wing billionaires spend whatever it takes to elect uncritical henchman, it’s easy to understand such pessimism.

But it took 250 years to end slavery in the United States. Addressing the damage that has continued to accumulate since that time, might take another 250 years. But it will happen faster if we don’t indulge in such pessimism and choose to take action instead. In the meantime, in the pursuit of such a great good, our collective health would probably improve. And we’d make new friends.

Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans and other people serve the political interests of constituents who get some benefit, real or imagined, from the continuing oppression of African Americans.

It’s certainly true that some people receive such valuable benefits from ripping off others, but we need to be able to distinguish which ones receive a material benefit from race-based exploitation and which ones receive less tangible benefit, like the relief associated with the knowledge that some people are worse off or more despised than you are. That second group should not be a priority, but they should be labored with if the resources or inclination are there.

Forget about the first group and their retainers and close beneficiaries. They are the enemy. They probably won’t completely disappear, even after the rest of us have moved on.

And then, finally, you might oppose reparations because you are Clarence Thomas.

Well, never mind, Justice Thomas, you may be the most lost of all lost causes. It’s nearly impossible to guess what it’s like to be you and what you’ve given up to get where you are now.

But let’s give Ta-Neheisi Coates the last word:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

“Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Through Audrey's eyes

The 1983 Mayoral Campaign in Chicago

Audrey Epton wrote this piece, recalling the tumultuous 1983 mayoral campaign in Chicago. She wrote it while Bernie/Dad was still alive--in 1985 or '86, I'm guessing. She gave it to me sometime during the summer of 2010, I think, just months before she died. I put it in a to-read pile in my office and later buried it beneath other less important papers (my bad). But I unearthed it this week and decided to post it.

It is, after all, a first-person account of the 1983 campaign by someone who was there and who loved Bernie Epton. I wish it was longer and more detailed, but to my knowledge it is still the longest thing Mom ever wrote. I also wish it was more emotionally forthcoming, but Mom was an emotionally reticent person to the end--she does not, for instance, even try to describe how deeply depressed Dad was in the last four years of his life. Even so, it's clear that the '83 campaign and its ramifications for her family caused her a lot of anguish.

She certainly wasn't a neutral observer--she was all-in for Bernie, but her perspective matters, nevertheless. And she's right about a few important things. Dad wasn't a racist, she wrote, just really, really stubborn. But his refusal to retract the "Epton, before it's too late" campaign slogan conveyed that unfortunate impression to hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans, something Mom doesn't really acknowledge here.

But I find her summary statement here, about Black Pride, both awkward and somehow right on. The Washington campaign was an important moment for African-Americans and Chicago, itself. Had Dad not been Washington's opponent, he and Mom would have had no trouble recognizing how important Washington's victory would be.

I was there at the moment the phone rang on Thanksgiving Day, 1982. When I picked up the phone, it was Governor James Thompson on the other end. He had called to ask my husband to run for mayor of Chicago in the 1983 election.

After some discussion and a promise to get back to the governor, Bernie hung up the phone—and said to me, guess what, Jim Thompson just asked me to run for mayor.

I said, I know. I was listening on the other phone.

Bernie asked me what I thought about the idea and after talking back and forth for some time, I said to him I think you should go for it. You’ve been in politics in one way or another all your life and besides, you would make a great mayor.

Bernie was completely taken aback because he was sure I would say no. He was finishing his last term after 14 years as a state rep and he knew I was very happy about that.

I was tired of our separations. I could not always be in Springfield when the legislature was in session for varying reasons. And it seemed as though each year the sessions started earlier and ended later. Besides that, Bernie is a loner and if I wasn’t down there, he would tend to go from the floor of the House to his apartment after the day’s session, eat improperly and generally not be too happy.

He had a distinguished career as a state representative from his freshman term on. He was always chairman of a committee of one kind or another—he had many feathers in his cap, but never felt he had done enough and was rarely satisfied with his accomplishments.

I remember one bill that was a tremendous plus to the general public—the insurance bill that he initiated and passed... if your insurance company went broke and became insolvent for whatever reasons, the public never had to be the loser. If one had a claim, by law the other insurance companies had to pick up your claim. A tremendous factor, for instance if your house burned you would always have a place to turn.

Bernie was also in the leadership for many years before he retired in 1983. He has been a practicing lawyer from 1947 and also has been in big business and has been active in community affairs for the 42 years I have known him. That’s a lot of time spent away from home, but we also went to a lot of affairs together. You might say for a little girl born in England, Bernie made me a political animal. In our home, what was going on in the community was always of vital importance to us.

So that is first a very [short story] of Bernie’s life and some of the reasons I told him to go for it. I said at least you will be in the city, no further than City Hall, except on occasion.

Sometimes, looking back, I wonder if I should have said, “no, Bern, don’t do it.” There is no doubt about it that that campaign changed our lives. Whenever Bernie [had] entered a campaign [previously], he got extremely good press. He was always endorsed by all the newspapers, as was the case [early] in this campaign. All of the newspapers gave him glowing editorials, saying in part that Republicans were lucky to have such a fine candidate—one glowing description after another.

He also had never taken a dime politically for any of his previous campaigns, sending back any contributions that came in (not that he was so wealthy) but he did not want to be beholden to any one group. Once you take somebody’s money, they expect you to do their bidding, vote their way. Bernie always wanted to be free to vote his conscience.

On the floor of the House, he would declare if he had a conflict of interest—his colleagues respected him enough to [clear him to] vote. There were times he would not attend a party caucus because he would not want to be bound by them. A rebel perhaps—but we could do with more like him.

Going back to the campaign of ’83, it was such a larger scale that he had to accept contributions, but even these were different. They were smaller amounts from people on the street that just wanted to see him elected. One old man of 90 came to his [headquarters] with a $5.00 contribution and said when he gave it, I just want to see a Republican mayor of Chicago before I die.

When I say I think I did our family a disservice by encouraging Bernie to run, it is because of what happened after the primary when Harold Washington became the Democratic nominee.

Up until the primary we had a small staff and a small army of volunteers. We campaigned together, we went into the neighborhoods. Because the fight was on the Democratic side and Bernie had no opposition, the press sort of left us alone, which irritated me. I didn’t think it fair that Bernie got so little coverage.

A funny thing happened one night because of that. Bernie had two meetings to go to and I went with him. The meetings were in opposite directions and we were on a tight schedule. It was a cold, snowy night. We had made the first meeting okay, but got lost going to the second one. We were in an unfamiliar part of the city.

Frantically, as we drove, we looked for a policeman or a telephone or a person to tell us where we were, but it was such a miserable night, nobody was out. Finally Bernie said to me, I think we’re going in the wrong direction—there being no traffic, he made a u-turn, and, guess what, we found a policeman. All of a sudden a blue light appeared and pulled us over. We were delighted to see him. Bernie said, “Officer, I’m Bernard Epton. I’m running for mayor and we’re lost on our way to a meeting. Will you tell me where so and so is?”

“Certainly, sir, after I give you this ticket,” he said.

We finally got to the meeting a little chagrined and bedraggled.

Bernard Epton was a victim of the bias of the press. Before the primary, Bernie was treated with a measure of respect by the media. After the primary, when Harold Washington became the Democratic nominee, Bernie was portrayed as a racist immediately—if Bernie criticized Harold for anything, at all, it was because he was a racist.

The media, both print and electronic, could not have done a worse thing to a man who his whole life had worked for civil rights and racial equality. We are both still bruised and bleeding from that treatment.

Small comfort when I think it would have [happened to] anybody white once Harold was the nominee. Bernie and Harold had know each other and been on a friendly basis for years, but the press took exception to the fact that Bernie would refer to Washington by his first name, inferring that Bernie was treating Washington with no respect. Harold Washington immediately worked on that sore, always referring to Bernie as Mr. Epton. Nevertheless, when the campaign was over, it was back to “Bernie.”

How could the media be so blind? The media was manipulated and they in turn manipulated the voters, which of course is nothing new. I think, too, that one of the problems the press had with Bernard Epton was the fact that they were dealing with a totally honest man and they couldn’t cope with that. My husband, also being a rather stubborn man, would not change an ad that had been planned before the primary that [what] was needed [was] fiscal responsibility as Chicago was financially in bad shape. But the press decided that the slogan, “Epton, before it’s too late,” was racist.

Bernie refused to change it knowing in his heart that it was not racist. He was also blamed for an ugly incident at St. Pascal’s Church when Washington and Mondale visited there one Sunday afternoon. There were people picketing with racist slogans. The press indicated they were Epton supporters, which was a tremendous blow to Bernie. He immediately called Harold Washington to tell him how upset he was and that of course he condemned the incident.

Harold, of course, knowing Bernie, so well believed him. But the damage was done to the Epton campaign by that incident—it is hard to erase something like that from one’s mind. I like to think that in time more of the 1983 campaign will come out and it will be found that Bernard Epton is not a racist—but rather somebody that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was steamrollered by black pride.