Survivor's guilt for first generation after segregation

January 12, 2007|By Erin Aubry Kaplan | Erin Aubry Kaplan,Los Angeles Times

I recently turned 45, and for the first time in my life, my age came as a bit of a shock. Not because of the number (well, maybe a little bit) but because I've started looking backward at my footprints and realizing there aren't enough.

I know it's a bit premature, but I'm searching for a semblance of my place in history and am coming up empty. I don't think that will change, especially as history rushes to fill in the blanks made by moments and eras that seem to be coming at us faster and faster - 9/11, the war in Iraq, climate change. At 45, I'm officially panicked that my generation, the first one to grow up free of legal segregation and the one expected to significantly close the social distance between black and white, has failed to have an effect. I worry that we will not be feted but forgotten. Our moment of truth came with a roar and left with a mumble - or something less.

The failure is not entirely our fault. In fact, it's clear now that the expectations vested in my generation 40 or so years ago were too much, too soon. But the disappointment weighs heavily nonetheless because I was inarguably in the right place at the right time.

I was born in 1962, two years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I was a young baby boomer poised to embrace the good life, which had a very specific meaning for African-Americans: We would have justice, freedom, social mobility - all those noble goals that connected previous generations.

And for a time, it seemed those goals were finally within reach. In the early 1970s, I helped integrate a public elementary school. By the 1980s, affirmative action helped ensure that my good grades and SAT scores translated into an opportunity to go to college. I got a graduate degree in theater arts.

I was on my way to being an actor until I realized that acting was a crapshoot I couldn't stomach - especially in Hollywood, where success is iffy and no ethnic type goes unexploited. I cast about for something more dignified and eventually came up with journalism. And here I sit.

Sounds good, right? A full exercising of my American privilege to do what I like, and certainly a step up from what my parents could expect when they were young.

But these bits of progress were always dwarfed by context and a bigger picture of black America that remains stubbornly ominous. White flight has left the school I "integrated" as ethnically isolated now as it was when I arrived in 1972. The University of California, Los Angeles, which I attended, hit a new low last year in black student enrollment. Part of my decision to ditch theater had to do with a disillusioning experience with a professor who refused to believe that someone my color could possibly be a sophisticated thinker. To him I was all smoke and mirrors - and because of a context I didn't even know I'd internalized, I believed him. For years I was a figment of my own thwarted imagination.

Of course, I was luckier than a lot of my peers, who fell to drugs or violence but mostly to a sense of incompleteness intensified by a lackluster job and an inadequate education in this so-called age of opportunity. Many coped with this incompleteness in the way many black people always have, by taking what they could get and leaving grander ambitions aside. By just trying to survive.

But this is exactly where we failed - or where history failed us. It is why we are not the transition but the broken link between the generation of World War II and the hip-hop generation, which has plenty of attitude but little vision of what came before it and what will come next. It is why I feel almost like a fraud when I talk to black high school students at bare, unintegrated campuses about why dreams are important. It is why I feel not triumphant at my own relative success but trapped in a kind of survivor's guilt that no amount of further good fortune can assuage.

Our legacy may be that we kept a foot in the two Americas and tried to stay upright. I'll see how I'm standing in five years, when I'm 50. Now that's old.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this article originally appeared.

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