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Artwork by Peter BennettIf there were a deity such as the one the Eskimos are said to worship, the God of What Might Have Been, Howard Kohn's new book, We Had a Dream: A Tale of the Struggle for Integration in America, might be seen as a late-20th-century gospel in tribute to that god. Kohn introduces himself and his characters as participants in that most valiantly hopeful enterprise of post-WWII America, the civil rights movement. He then sets himself the task of observing what became of those ordinary individuals who exemplified that battle. Some four decades after the Voting Rights Act, what has befallen their experiment? How well have we lived up to the promise of What Might Be?
We Had a Dream is itself made valiant, and in the long run worthy, because Kohn chooses not to consider these things from the high, dry safety of a sociological or statistical remove or, as is popular, with polemical certainty. Kohn claims it "a well-established fact that scholarly research, or even a political theory, is less useful than folklore for understanding race relations." His own folklore is narrative journalism, honed as an editor and a reporter for Rolling Stone, and turned to the illumination of more or less common lives (he's also the author of Who Killed Karen Silkwood? and The Last Farmer). Thus he joins the other recent writers (notably Alex Kotlowitz, in The Other Side of the River) who are inspecting America's racial trauma through the lens of private experience, as it plays out in the daily difficulties of particular persons in one or another microcosmic place.
On the face of things, Kohn has chosen an anomalous microcosm: Prince George's County, Maryland. Prince George's, a satellite of Washington, D.C., first entered the consciousness of most Americans when it became, as Kohn puts it, "the place where the [George] Wallace political juggernaut, at its northernmost edge, was stopped by Arthur Bremer's gun." But in the years since 1972, the county has gone from redneck rural to cosmopolitan suburban and, since 1990, majority black. Its racial transformation defies, rather than echoes, the demographic shift of many other American communities in one significant regard: because so many of its newcomers are black professionals from Washington, D.C., and also because the county now boasts half the black-owned businesses in Maryland, Prince George's is becoming richer as it becomes darker. That has made it a paragon, a place that The New York Times could claim, in 1992, is "fast becoming the closest thing to utopia," and where, Kohn says, life is "arguably as good as it gets."
To find out just how good that might be, Kohn consults a broad cast of characters, people whose common thread is their personal grapple with the possibilities of a multiracial society. The first we meet is Bruce Gordon, a loan financier who in his late 30s has moved back to the neighborhood of Hillcrest Heights, where he grew up, to take care of his stroke-crippled father, Dr. David S. Gordon. Coincidentally, Bruce also resumes wooing, after nearly 15 years' estrangement, his old high school sweetheart, Camilla Brown. Their romance was a small scandal in their teen days -- Bruce is white and Jewish, while Camilla is black -- and it remains a point of unhappiness for Bruce's father, a physician still loved by black Prince Georgians because his office was an early island of equal treatment, but who personally cannot stomach the thought of a black daughter-in-law.
Kohn lets the narrative of Bruce and Camilla's dilemma spread like a pond-ripple through the community, first taking in their friends Merv and Dell Strickler, a white couple who "belonged to a category of civil-rights activists who never marched, never picketed, never got arrested, and never joined the NAACP but who, whenever they came across a barrier of racism, made a Gandhian effort to smash it down," sometimes at the cost of being pelted with eggs or insults. Then the ripple extends across Foster Place to take in Gloria Lawlah, who was the street's first black resident when she moved to Hillcrest Heights in 1969, and who faced predictable hostility, but whose political ascendance has followed her neighborhood's transformation: Lawlah is the first black woman Maryland state senator from Prince George's County.
As Kohn joins them, Lawlah and her political caucus, the Black Alliance, are coming up on a milestone, an effort to elect in 1994 Prince George's first black county executive. The prospect isn't trivial. As one University of Maryland professor points out to Kohn, "Prince George's can be the first jurisdiction where a black political establishment takes over a place that's on the way up. It would be an unprecedented event." ä
There is, though, a sticking point: Lawlah is also loyally supporting a woman who was long a local hero of black advancement, who is now becoming an albatross: public defender Elvira White. White is fighting against perceived racism to be elected a county judge, but in the process she has alienated even her allies. And here Kohn's story, already perched on the stilts of cross-racial romance and interracial politics, finds its third leg: the race aspects of crime and justice. White's career, so long fought for, so long illustrious, is coming step by step unglued, as a series of relatively petty race squabbles detonate in her face. The one that is not petty is White's conduct in defense of a teenage white girl named Amy Smith, who is charged with conspiracy. Amy's father has shot to death her black boyfriend, Derrick Jones, in their living room, but he claimed self-defense, saying that Jones was involved in a plot devised by Amy herself to rob and kill him and his wife. As the court-appointed lawyer, Elvira White can most easily defend Amy by portraying the dead black youth as the sole transgressor and a murderous intruder, but she balks at relying on such a young-black-male stereotype, and the girl is convicted. Did the attorney's racial loyalties get in the way of her effectiveness? The issue is brought before a professional review board with power to ruin White's career.
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