Dream & Reality Anger: Washington journalist Sam Fulwood III is a middle-class black man who has had it with the assumption that integration equals happiness.

July 23, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Sam Fulwood III, self-described "blue-chip black" and Capitol Hill correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, is angry.

His generation of black baby boomers came of age with civil rights, voting rights, affirmative action, fair housing, school integration. They were "Negro ambassadors," children burdened with the responsibility of proving blacks were as good as whites.

In "Waking from the Dream: My Life in the Black Middle Class," his recently published autobiography from Doubleday, he writes that they were "trained to run the next lap, after the historic heroism of those who faced the dogs, water hoses and brutal cops. . . . I was bred to cheerfully embrace the integration of the races."

Thirty years later, the youthful optimism is gone. Now, there is despair. A life in thecountry's labyrinth of race and class has left Fulwood, 39, disappointed and disillusioned. Like many other successful blacks, he is weighing the cost of racial integration.

"A lot of middle class black folks are saying, 'I'm going to find someplace where I can be happy and comfortable and sane in my community. If white folk want to be there, great. If they don't want to be there, that's fine, too. My happiness is not dependent upon somebody white granting me happiness,' " says Fulwood. "When I first started writing this, people did not believe what I was saying was true. White folks didn't. The publishers, the people in New York, didn't understand what I was talking about."

He is talking about a profound change of heart that has been echoed by other black journalists and writers in one anguished book after another. All have entered the professional class and found racism alive and well.

Fulwood's awakening and subsequent rejection of some of the civil rights era's most cherished tenets is troubling because of his apparent success. A string of newspaper jobs at the Charlotte Observer, The Sun and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has led to a high-profile assignment at one of the country's top newspapers. His book's cover shows his smiling family of three standing before a nice home in the D.C. suburbs. His luncheon interview is held at a comfortable, white-tablecloth restaurant on Capitol Hill.

On the surface, all seems well.

But "Waking from the Dream" is not about surface things. It is about what goes unsaid.

"The whole nature of race relations in America is sad," says Fulwood. "The legacy of slavery is such in our society that race defines who we are. It's a fact. It's like gravity, and I would wish that it weren't. But it is."

For some, "Waking from the Dream," probably reads like one man's whining.

"My argument to that is: What are you doing when you talk about reverse discrimination, angry white men? Is that whining?" asks Fulwood, defending his book.

Whites tell him to take the money, the position, the success -- and shut up. In Philadelphia, a young black man asked if he were trying to disassociate himself from the rest of black America by putting "middle class" in the book's title. A black woman on a St. Louis radio call-in show accused him of crying because white folks wouldn't accept him.

"Some black people have said, 'I couldn't believe you could be so naive. Why did you ever want that? Why did you ever want to be part of their world?' " he says.

In many quarters, the idea of a color-blind society coming within two generations of Jim Crow's demise was preposterous. Fulwood realizes that now.

"Admittedly that was naive and, more harshly, it was wrong to believe that," he says. "I admit that my expectations were probably misguided and unrealistic, but that's part of my argument."

Growing up in the protective cocoon of Charlotte's black, teacher-preacher middle class, Fulwood found it easy to hope. The South was undergoing incredible changes. As a child, he could be denied a kiddie ride on a donkey; as a teen, he could compete against whites in an oratory contest and win.

He writes about going from a world in which "white people existed only in some other, irrelevant dimension" to one in which black children from Charlotte's housing projects seemed more foreign than his white classmates. It was a world far removed from the rural North Carolina his parents knew.

This "Southern" experience shaped his world view. Charlotte did not suffer the violent upheaval of Northern cities. The move from segregation to integration came relatively easy for a middle-class black child. Why shouldn't the dramatic pace of change continue? Why shouldn't he and his generation enter the Promised Land?

A generation later, Fulwood sees retreat on both sides. Affirmative action is under attack. Racial intolerance is in the air. Full integration is no longer a much sought after goal. In fact, some people don't want it at all.

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