Sunday, October 26, 2008

My Black and White America: Michael Parks and Barack Obama

For about a year I’ve been wanting to write about Michael Parks. I've written about him before, but it hasn't been very cohesive. This time I was prompted when my mother said she was thinking about voting for Barack Obama, because he reminded her so much of Michael Parks. My mother has never voted for a democrat in her life.

Moreover, my mother was raised in the 1940s and 1950s in a fairly racist environment. It was her mother, my grandmother, who took me aside while visiting us in the south suburbs of Chicago to talk to me about her views on the mixing of the races. She didn’t approve. Blacks should marry blacks and whites should stick to their own kind, too. She didn’t even fully approve that my aunt was raising her children as “Italians.” My mother was at that point raising us as Protestants, having left the Catholic Church when I was twelve, and so we were in trouble already as far as my grandmother was concerned. During that visit I also heard her say, “I’ve never been anywhere that Catholics weren’t in the majority.” My mother’s evangelical environment struck her as quite strange. Later I would see what my parents had done in a new light—in their early twenties they’d left their families in South Jersey and moved when my father’s job transferred him to Chicago. They’d moved to Park Forest because of the availability of cheap housing, and I think also for the promise it always offered of a solid community and the ability to move up, neighborhood by neighborhood.

My parents moved into the middle class, and despite their conservative politics, they were living in a place that was known for radicals. Park Forest, Illinois, built in the 1940s as a planned postwar community, was unusual from its founding for its commitment to integration, first of Jews and then of Blacks. It’s history with race was complicated, but in 1976 Park Forest won its second of two “All-America City” awards “for its efforts in housing rehabilitation, fair housing, and racial integration” (America’s Original GI Town, 134). Our block of Farragut Street, our home in Park Forest after we moved up from the townhouses, was a perfect example. Across the street were Cathy and Michael Zilverberg, whose mother was black and father was white (and Jewish). They lived next door to Keith Smith, whose mother was British. In the house behind ours lived my brother’s best friends for a time, Freddy and Frankie Wang, before they moved back to Taiwan. Two doors down from us was Michael Parks, who was black. Cathy Zilverberg, Keith Smith, Michael Parks and I were inseparable for years. Cathy taught me to double-dutch, and we spent hours beneath Keith’s window waiting for him to finish practicing his horn. We played Kick the Can, 500, every imaginable kind of tag, and even chicken fights, with the girls on the boys’ shoulders. We had a science lab, a clubhouse, and we all learned the electric slide in Cathy’s living room.

No doubt my grandmother had noticed that my best friend, Michael Parks, was a black boy. In fact, with only two exceptions I can think of, all the boys who came to my house to visit me were black. From Phillip in the fourth grade up through J.T. Berkley who worked with me at Ponderosa Steakhouse during high school, unsolicited they came. When J.T. showed up at the door, in a steel WWI helmet, army jacket, and carrying a cane, dark-skinned, with a voice several octaves below any other high schoolers I knew and a full beard, my father sounded downright exasperated when he called me: “Susan, someone’s at the door for you,” before turning and retiring back to his spot watching sports on t.v. from the living room couch.

I was lucky growing up to have many best friends, but none of them held a candle to Michael Parks. He moved in when we were in third grade. Before him, my friend Kelly had lived in that house, and it was my first experience of a friend moving away. I hoped with all my heart that another child my age would move in, and I could not have gotten luckier that it was Michael who did. Michael and his brother Anderson (Andy) were being raised by their single mother, Lois Parks, who was a school teacher in Chicago. She is a heroic woman in my eyes, having somehow bought that house and brought her sons up in a good school district, with the opportunity to go to college. I have no idea what her commute was, but it was surely long.

Michael was a huge fan of after-school television, an interest it was important to him that we shared. And I was game—very happy to discuss which of the superheroes was the best in the Super Friends (?) half hour, and lament the fact that there were so few Captain America episodes in the rotation. It was because of Michael I had the terrifying experience of so many After School Specials, none scarier than the two-part edition of Sybil with Sally Field, the flying nun, and that I learned my Gilligan’s Island and I Dream of Jeanie references.

And given all the television we watched, it’s amazing how much activity we accomplished. Michael decided my house was the best for Kick the Can, and he was right. Michael was almost assuredly behind the scheme to build the clubhouse in my backyard when we got our hands on two boards from a broken ping pong table. We used the fence for the other two walls, and for weeks we trolled the neighborhood on Thursday afternoons, “garbage picking” for our clubhouse.

Michael always wanted us to enter contests—especially if there were cash prizes. He talked me into a Halloween contest in 1976, when we were 12. My costume, as always, was highly conceptual. I was the “Spirit of ’76,” a plain white ghost with a sign saying Spirit of ’76. (I did not win in the Most Creative category, as I’d hoped.) Michael was a robot, a costume he’d made out of an astonishing number of boxes cut to fit every part of his body. It was hard to move around in it, and even harder to see out of it. At the end of the contest we sat and watched as a perky woman announced: “First Place goes to—Michael Parks!” The robot moved his head around until he got her in his sight and then headed off. But she was already moving to the other side of the stage. “Michael Parks?” He stopped, adjusted his box until he found her, and began walking again. Still she didn’t notice him, and moved: “Michael Parks?” waving his prize check in the air. The audience laughed, as again the robot froze and tried to find the woman with his money. This got her attention, and they managed to meet center stage.

A few days later, on Halloween proper, I went to pick Michael up for trick-or-treating after school, and he was alone at the house. As I was coming to the door a group of small children came running up and pushed in front of me. “Trick or Treat!” they yelled. Michael took out a giant bowl of candy and held it out to them. Then he stood there, his mouth a wide “o” of surprise, while the kids scooped handfuls of candy into their bags. When they’d left, and I was telling him, “Michael! You don’t hold out the bowl! You give them the candy!” He replied, “I think they were here already.”

That was Michael. No one was more generous, more open-hearted. Michael was kind and funny, and he was also my biggest and earliest fan. In fourth grade our elementary school got a new principal and with him, a student council. Michael ran for Treasurer and I ran for Secretary. Only 4-6 graders could run for office. We were young and my race was, as it were, contentious. Michael, though, tirelessly worked on my campaign: “Think Pink! Vote Sink!” “You’ll turn pink if you don’t vote for Sink!” were two of his favorite slogans. He made posters for me on his own time, at home, and brought them to school to hang up.

Michael got me to join 4-H with him, because instead of badges you could earn cash money: $1.50 for each unit completed. Write a speech: get $1.50. Learn to cook five dishes: $1.50. He figured we could easily earn $10 a year doing things we’d like to do anyway. I learned that I did not at all like to do embroidery.

It was also Michael who, somehow, found out we could audition to be in the summer play at the local community college. I hadn’t thought he was interested in plays—I was already involved in the theater run out of the basement of the Park Forest Public Library, and he’d never shown an interest. I think he just thought it would be a fun thing to do. And we’d make friends. I never would have tried out for something so far from home—too far to get to on my bike. I didn’t like to ask my mom to drive me places, and I knew it was hard for his mother to drive us too. That first summer we auditioned, at the end of eighth grade, Michael was cast in a small role, but I was not. Then I got a phone call a week before the play began. I was next on the list, and someone dropped out, so could I do a part—3 lines and some stage action. I said yes! Michael already had friends there, but he welcomed me and introduced me as quite the special addition to the cast. Those plays would become a very significant part of my teen years.

We did two more summer plays, landing bigger parts each time. In the last year the play was a kabuki-style production of “The Little Peach Boy” and Michael was Momotoro, the peach boy. I was the Ferocious Dog. It was easy to see this play was a version of the Wizard of Oz, and I had landed my dream role, a version of the Cowardly Lion. Michael was scrawny, with a big afro and knobby knees, and a sight in his tights and kimono, sword outstretched. He led us—dog, pheasant, and monkey—to the village to kill the ogre.

One of the unusual things about that summer theater at Governor’s State College in 1977-1981 was that it was decidedly interracial. Cross-racial casting was the norm, like when Sleeping Beauty was played by a black girl and had two white parents, and I was cast as a fairy princess twin—with my black twin sister. We remarked on that twin situation between ourselves, but it wasn’t a big deal. In fact, it was my black twin who pointed out: “Look at Sleeping Beauty’s parents—white!” I hadn’t noticed. Sleeping Beauty was played by Celene Evans, obviously the most beautiful and talented girl there, and that’s why she’d gotten the part. Who else could have played the princess?

I think in retrospect that the interracial nature of the casting is how Michael found out about the plays. There were no black kids in the theater program I attended in town. (I’m cringing now, wondering if I ever invited Michael to join me.) Very few, if any, black kids auditioned for plays at our junior high or high school. The few black kids who were in choir, or on speech team, were smart and pretty much outcasts from black society in our school. Because I was in the majority, I didn’t have to be aware of things like this. And I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really think about what it meant to my best friend, Michael.

In junior high, of course, I knew what was happening. Our happily integrated block was breaking up. We were going our separate—race-determined—ways. But the forces seemed outside my control. It seemed like the way things had to be, the way things are. My job—both our jobs—was to negotiate the social system, not to change it.

In the eighth grade, Michael was getting ready for high school by going to parties in other neighborhoods. His brother Andy, who now wanted to be called Anderson, was initiating him into “black culture” in our area. Michael invited me sometimes. He wanted to teach me “the steps,” would demonstrate them on the sidewalk, and he wanted me to come over and listen to Bootsie Collins and the Funkadelics albums. For the first time, though, I declined. I knew he was talking about parties with all black kids, although there’s no way he ever said that. I couldn’t go there with him. Those summer plays were the last place our world was integrated. When we went to high school, I’d see Michael in a few of the honor’s classes he was in, but not in the cafeteria. Not at parties, hang-outs, school plays, speech team, student council. My friends didn’t know him. I hung out with a group of seven girls, and we moved on the periphery of a popular crowd in our quintessentially John Hughes-esque world, dominated by class issues, not race. Michael went to parties in Beacon Hill, in Chicago Heights, in black neighborhoods. He was in the Afro Club. I’d finally see “the steps” in action when he invited me to one of their shows—a “step show,” where I was the only white person in the audience. Not an experience I had very often in high school, where African Americans were 25% of the population.

When he turned fifteen Michael came to our house to use my typewriter to change the date on his birth certificate. He heard Ponderosa, at the end of our block, would hire you for $2.90 an hour but you had to be sixteen. He went off to work and regaled me with the stories of how fun it was, how outrageous it was, how much I was missing. When I turned sixteen I made a half-hearted attempt to get a job at the mall, then joined Michael at Ponderosa. And he was right. It was a blast. It was more money than babysitting (still fifty cents/hour, sometimes seventy-five). I didn’t mind the polyester jumper and flowered headband. I wore my hair in looped braids on either side of my head which I thought of as Dutch, but Michael called me Princess Leia and said I should always wear my Princess Leia hair.

Again I was in a world unfamiliar to most of my classmates. Illegal immigrants and struggling, pregnant girls with their greasy boyfriends or deadbeat husbands were working there. The managers were (with one exception) not good human beings. And there were Mexicans and black boys from Beacon Hill working in the kitchen. One, Dale, from my own high school, rode a motorcycle and was a portrait in despair. He had a broken front tooth and a scar on his face. I was a little frightened of him, but my friend Laura (who I convinced to work there) befriended him. He had one of the worst stories I’d ever heard: his family car broke down on the side of the road and some white rednecks shot and killed his brother and left him for dead in the back seat. Laura did such a good job befriending him that he began to smile when we greeted him, and even talk to us in the kitchen, where we’d go to sneak pieces of cheesecake from the freezer.

Dale was always warning us there was going to be a race riot at school, but he said he’d protect us—if anything went down we should come to his locker. He dubbed us honorary Disciple Queens with the dishwasher nozzle and taught us a gang sign. I understood it was all in fun. When we did see him occasionally in the hall, again he’d break into a broad smile and give us the sign. Race riots were a thing of the past, but they had been severe not too long before we arrived at the school, when there were major controversies over bussing and the composition of a new high school in the district. We heard stories of locked down classrooms and overturned school buses. There was still a full-time policeman on duty. But he was not at all threatening, despite his gun, and I would not say it was a tough school. The fights that broke out were as segregated as everything else.

When we were in grade school, Keith, Michael, Cathy and I used to sometimes go into Ponderosa to get a drink of water from the drinking fountain. It was just the thrill of being in a place we weren’t supposed to go, and the managers would chase us off when they saw us. But Michael also showed us the gunshot holes in the wall outside, and two he said were gunshot holes in the paneled wall inside. And it’s true, Ponderosa was regularly robbed. Part of our training was detailed instructions on what to do in case of a robbery: give them the money, point out anything that might be unusual that could happen—someone coming from the kitchen, for example, through double doors—so no one got hurt. I never experienced a robbery, but Michael did. He walked into the office when a robbery was underway, asked what was going on to the cashier and the manager unloading the safe. The robber had them all take off their clothes and locked the clothes in the safe. It was the suburbs. Then again, bad shit does go down in those suburbs.

It actually never occurred to me to ask if the robber was black or white. I don’t know to this day, but I assumed he was white—or maybe I was told that. Somehow the white people who came in there seemed much more desperate characters than the black folks.

Michael was ambitious. He was set on going to Northwestern University, and that’s where he went. My best friend Kim went there, too. When I went to visit her sophomore year, she got me in touch with Michael. He invited me to an event he was in that night, a show for some occasion, probably Martin Luther King’s birthday. So I found myself in another auditorium, in a sea of black folks with here and there another white person. The show was joyous and, in places, intense. It was political, as the Afro Club show had been. Michael’s mother was there and I sat next to her. At the end we all stood up and joined hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Then Michael came and innocently wanted to know if I’d liked the show, as if it had just been a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland revue. And we went over to his fraternity house, which was of course a black fraternity.

I’ve been in these situations a few times, but more often as the only woman at a primarily gay male event. And the treatment is the same—people falling over themselves to talk to you, to make you welcome, to get you something to drink. I always end up feeling uncomfortable because I so obviously stand out and get special attention. Much the way it is for minorities at white, straight parties I’d imagine. After the party, Michael and I walked out to his car, so he could take me back to Kim’s dorm. I said, “Michael, you have been such a good friend to me. And you have never, ever acted like there was any diff—“

He cut me off. “Stop it,” he said, across the top of the car. “Don’t. Don’t every say that.”


We got into the car and after a brief silence, talked about his classes, my classes, the weather, something else—I don’t remember. I remember it was really cold outside. It was January.

Michael Parks was my best friend. And for much of our childhood, we really did live in a world free of race prejudice. We were aware we were different races. We were proud of it, even. Because of Michael I knew about nappy hair and ashy knees, and I was happy to know those things. It is true that when it was time to play at romance, during fifth grade, Michael paired up briefly with Cathy and I paired up with Keith. But Michael, well, Michael was like my brother—I’d like to think it was more about eros. And I noted that Michael only dated black girls, ones he met at those parties or the Ponderosa.

That also made sense to me. In the world of our high school, interracial dating relegated you into one group or another—invariably it meant a white girl who hung out with the black kids, regardless of her status at school. But I can’t think of any white girls with status who dated black boys. After junior high, there weren’t many black boys around. The ones who “mixed” with us, didn’t date. However, I think both Laura and I secretly had crushes on Gavin Sutton, who was moody and loved early Peter Gabriel era Genesis music and was lead singer in a band that did a few Cars covers and played some (white) parties. But Gavin took off right after high school for college in Mississippi and we never heard from or saw him again. Like Dale, I think in some ways he was humoring us. But I also think he was from the South, and saw the racial barriers in our part of the world more clearly than we could. He saw that there was a limit on our friendships, and dating was out of the question. He saw our quiet, unexpressed racism—though we thought ourselves the opposite.

The truth is, my grade school and high school experience represent what is great about race relations in America and what is awful. But it was a step on America’s journey toward having a black president. I’m 44, and so just a little ahead of me, Barack Obama was growing up in Kansas, and in Hawaii, with a white single mom and white grandparents. I don’t know what his high school was like or who his friends were.

But Barack Obama is the black son of a single mother, and got himself to Harvard Law School. Michael got an MBA and a law degree, and last I heard works for the Chicago Tribune as a lawyer, because it allows him to be home with his young daughters. His wife is a lawyer, too, beautiful, and her name is June. I learned this from my mother, who saw him at a funeral for Marty Zilverberg, Cathy’s brother, who was black, her mother’s child from a first marriage. Marty was among the nicest guys I’ve ever known. My parents read about his death in the paper and showed up at the wake, although they left Park Forest in 1993 and moved to a more rural, much whiter place further west. She said she and my father were the only white people there from the old neighborhood, and how happy Myrtle, Marty’s mother, had been to see them. I was living in California at the time. I tried tracking down Michael after that, left a message, but he didn’t call back.

It had been a long time. And we had parted ways long before. I tell my husband that I miss black people, and that’s why I want to have season tickets to Penumbra theater—just to hear black people, albeit on stage, talk. When I go to Chicago I like to take the train and hear people talk, and go to the Wishbone on Washington Street, which is the most integrated restaurant I know, just to see black people and eat near them. I go to Hyde Park when I get a chance, for soul food if I can get someone to go with me. My friend Kevin Young, a poet who grew up in Kansas too, son of a black father and white mother, who went to Harvard and Stanford and Brown and is an acclaimed poet, he sometimes came to Chicago and would go eat with me in the joints there. Kevin was born in 1968, four years behind me, and has his own story to tell.

I sometimes feel stupid for missing black people. For regretting that the world I grew up in during fourth-eighth grade came to an end, that paths diverged, that I made choices not to go to the step dances—but I know it was impossible. It didn’t happen because of who I was, and because of my perception of what was possible. I was not brave, and that was not my path. Only Michael Parks helped my life stay as integrated as it was for as long as it did.

I feel grateful, though, that there continued to be Affirmative Action efforts at Grinnell College where I went to school, and for Young, Gifted and Black Gospel Choir at Grinnell that fostered black culture, that gave black students who landed in Iowa from Hyde Park in Chicago and elsewhere a place to feel safe, experience their culture, apart from me and my middle-class white John Hughes suburban ways. When people were up in arms about the choir keeping whites out, I said: “Please. Do we have to be everywhere?”

And so it doesn’t surprise me that now, with my generation growing into our middle age, is the time for Barack Obama to be president. That it begins with my generation. Because we grew up with Michael Parks in our neighborhoods. We grew up where Michael Parks lived. And though we were just children, and only did our part innocently, as children will, it is because of the people before us who made sure that anyone who excluded a black person from anything would be ashamed of it, and made sure the schools got integrated, albeit tenuously and not in the lunchrooms so much, or even sometimes in the classrooms just then. It is because of Temmie Gilbert, the director at Governor’s State, who somehow got the word out about her plays and her casting policies to black kids and white kids, even though she herself lived in tony Flossmoor! It is because of the people of Park Forest who were committed to interracial neighborhoods, and the people of my block, where everyone welcomed any of the kids into their home, including my parents who were not raised that way but managed to learn it—even the children who showed up in combat hats and army jackets, even pesky little Ricky Payne who got in fights and had mean dogs—but was no worse than the troubled white kid next door who smoked pot and set my brother’s Halloween decorations on fire and peeped at my sister through our bedroom window. Less worse in many ways.

It’s because of my experience, that it feels exactly right that now is the time for a black president in the United States. And that the man who is running reminds me, and reminds my mother, of Michael Parks. And it is because of my experience that I’m not counting on a victory until all the votes are cast and counted on election day. Let us see how far we’ve come. Let us see if we can celebrate that progress now, and move even further as a nation in the years ahead.


Lydia said...

I loved hearing about Michael Parks again. You had told me stories about him before. Do you know what he's up to these days?

Susan Sink said...

hi lydia! Thanks for reading/commenting! Yes, it's just not halloween without the robot story...of course, it's funnier when I act it out :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan--

You bring back old memories. I lived in Beacon Hills and is best friends with Andy and Michael. Marty was also a dear friend. We all hung together throughout high school. My name is Terry Thompson. You can certainly compare Michael to Barack. The funny thing is we didn't see the world back then as black and white. It was all about having fun. I'm sure that Barack was going through the same thing back in the late 70's. It probably shaped him in the person he is today. Thanks for documenting a part of our history in the All American City.

Susan Sink said...

Terry, thank you SO MUCH for leaving a comment. That was an important time, and I am so happy I grew up with the people and in the place that I did. Andy, Michael and Marty were and are very special people.

Anonymous said...

Hallo Susan,

This was a good story to read. I never knew the struggles that your parents and to some point you went through on race issues. I guess I just never saw it and it was never discussed, at least with me. I guess that I have been around all kinds of people by the time that I met you and even more since then. I had learned to take people as individuals and colour did not matter as good, bad, or otherwise did not hold colour lines. I learned that right was right and wrong was wrong and sometimes one took a beat down for being right. Ask me how I know.

When I was in high school, some fun times and some rough times, I remember some kids we picking on this 9th grader which was not right. The kid could not defend himself from these upper classmates. I had never seen this kid before but asked him 'what is going on here, Cous?' And before this little white guy (not that I was big at 160lbs) could answer one of the bullies asked with surprise all in his eyes, this is your cousin? I told the both of them yes he is and if you are picking on him you are picking on me. The bullies back down and never picked on him again. I on the other hand got called into the counsler's office some time after this to explain what happened. I got to meet the kid, now I forget his name, and talk with the counsler about why I did it. She thanked me for what I did because this kid was having problems in high school and no friends.

I can total understand that 'I am the only one' feeling. When I started highschool there were only 1% black people in the whole school. Not only did you have to deal with k-nucklehead students at times, but the teachers, some of them would not be fair just because you were not white. This is why math worked for me and english did not.

We know how smart Micheal 'tweety' Parks was in highschool. At least book smart and quick witted with the mouth. Funny too at times. I once took (he gave it to me) an English paper he wrote for an English class that was 'A' graded turned it in to one of me English classes to see what kind of grade the smart Mr. Parks would get if it had my name on it with my teacher Mr. Casper. He thought, out loud, that I was no more than a 'C' student. That paper got a 'B-' I thank Michael for helping me prove my case as to the prejudice that went on at this time. I am sure if you Susan, had turned in that paper it would have been 'A+'. I could not tell the teacher or any school official.

Needless to say Susan, you were young, as were we all including Michael. I would not beat myself up for the things that you did or did not do in highschool over race. It is a power and sometimes dangerous thing. Not even the Fonz in Happy Days could fix racism. He could fix everything else in every episode but this one.

Susan, you have been a ray of sunshine since I have known you and you have always kept me laughing. Thanks for your stories. They are great.

Susan Sink said...

Although it says "Anonymous," I would know you and your writing style anywhere, J.T. Thanks for posting this comment. I hope you read the one about Ponderosa on the blog, too! You definitely helped me out in my life-- and made living in the suburbs A LOT more interesting! I'll have to tell you some of my "J.T./The Berk" stories sometime...