Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

I sat down this afternoon to watch the Packers.  Afterward, I was flipping through the stations to get my mind off a poor performance and I was waiting to see what was needed as Emma celebrated her 11th birthday with five girlfriends.

After I scrolled along through over 100 channels I came to the 1967 movie classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharen Hepburn, as the liberal progressive white parents, and the hero is played by the first black acting superstar, Sidney Poitier.

I have never seen the entire movie and didn’t today.  I came in when the Poitier character was talking to his father about his desire to marry.  He said:

“… I owe you nothing … You did what you did for me because you were supposed to do.  You don’t own me.  You don’t even know who I am, what I feel, how I think.  And not until your whole generation lays down and dies will the dead weight of you be off our backs.  I love you and will always love you, but you think of yourself as a colored man.  I think of myself as a man.”

Prejudice and bigotry kept young blacks and whites in America from marrying or even dating in the not too distant past.  It was even illegal in many states, the year this movie was released.

My mind went instantly to Barack Obama, who’s parents’ marriage would have been in in some states.

In that same year of 1967, LBJ’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, offered his resignation when his daughter, a Stanford student, announced her engagement to a black Georgetown grad working at NASA. (Johnson didn’t accept it.)

I too always thought my parents were progressive liberals and were past the prejudices in this movie.  My father actually marched in the 60s.  But one day I came home my senior year of high school (’83-’84) exuberant that the star basketball player at my school, a guy that I had been friends with a while, knew well and liked, wanted to take me out.  I was absolutely gushing!  I really had a crush on this guy and he obviously like me too.   He was headed to MIT or something comparable.  He saved me in computer class, because I didn’t understand a thing!

But he was black.  And that was all my father could think about when I explained how cool this was.  Dad didn’t say no, but he served up a litany of reasons for why- it- might- not- be- wise- most- especially- “Think of your children!”  Children? Jeez, I wasn’t asking to marry the guy! I had hardly dated in high school for various reasons and this amazing, beautiful boy wanted to go out with me!

I never expected that reaction from my Dad.  And it’s puzzling to think how you can believe something intellectually but not be forced by real circumstances to prove it.  But you know what makes me really mad, and ashamed about the whole thing is how I accepted it.  I took it.  I sat there and did what he wanted.  Our my own fear of my father’s disproval, I never had that date.  I don’t remember exactly how I ended it, but twenty-five years later I still feel sick about it and wonder where Kendrick is today? Back to the movie, the girl’s father in the movie finally comes to see that they can and should marry.  He said “You are going to have to cling tight to each other and say screw all those people that disagree.”  So much is different, for the better, than when I was in high school.  No thanks to me, but to the brave men and women of the civil-rights movement.

From a NYT Op Ed written by Frank Rich on the 1st of November, but I found it today Googling the date the movie was made.

Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday. Should he win the White House on Tuesday, many will cheer and more than a few will cry as history moves inexorably forward.

But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.

I’m feeling reflective obviously and profoundly thankful that Barack Obama’s parents had the courage to be together and that this incredible man was born.  But for me, at 42, as a mother, I have to figure out how this is meaningful to me beyond what I feel is a mistake  or huge regret in my own life.   How do I transcend this and do something positive?

My children are 20, 11, 9 and 7.  I must be ready for the day when they come home with the love of their life and welcome them with open arms, no matter their race, gender or age.

But on a lighter and more immediate note: Many cultures have traditions of opening their homes to strangers and inviting them to share a meal.  In the United States, many of us celebrate Thanksgiving often welcome visitors to our tables.  What about you.  If you want to I’d love to hear about the most interesting guest you’ve ever broken bread with — holiday-related or otherwise.

Where were they from? How did they come to be at your table? What tales did they have to tell? Did you feel richer for the experience of hosting them?

And as you consider this thanksgiving, rembmer that there are lots of people that won’t be able to travel this year because of the economy.  Perhaps consider someone you know and invite them to come for dinner.

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