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.
“Like an intricate novel, the Amy Smith case held many possible truths,” writes Kohn, and the same could be said of his book. He weaves his several plots together (along with a series of subplots and histories) in a sort of lyric counterpoint, jumping from scene to scene with the antic restlessness of an afternoon soap opera. Like a soap opera, We Had a Dream offers no ultimate climax, but never lets you rest, either. Kohn isn't chasing the ringing epiphany; the revelations he's after are mundane. He's helped by a quick sense of irony — that Jones, the “murderous” black teen who may have been drawn to his death because he so envied Amy Smith's whiteness, was actually of a more enviable socioeconomic class than she; that those whites who courageously worked against the white supremacists to integrate their neighborhoods are now turning to a white candidate to save them from black domination. Bruce Gordon exults in the transformations of the local shopping center — a place where as a kid he was terrorized by the Grits, a redneck gang that hated Bruce for “not being white enough”; now he is attacked in the same shopping center by a gang of black teens for the sin of being too white.
Here, as elsewhere, Kohn's ironies don't serve comic nihilism. They are the very stuff of racial agony and metastasizing despair. “In bed later, doors doublelocked, shades drawn, agitated again and sleepless, a belly full of twice-heated coffee, it came to Bruce there was no arrangement with fate to be had. Purity of heart did not protect anyone from bullies; the truth never made anyone free; good intentions never sent anyone to heaven; and integration was another virtuous myth.”
Elvira White, a woman Kohn describes as having “no neutral parties in her life, only true believers or traitors,” is more and more embittered by her trials. “I am accused of reducing everything to black and white,” she says, “but, when you are black and all the people against you are white, that's black and white isn't it?” Still, after she has lost every battle and even her home has been repossessed, the single possession she holds on to last is her precious collection of dolls, her own tragic miniature relic of an idealized world. “African dolls, but also blondes in gingham, curlicue heads in velvet and Amish-dressed dolls, some with hair like dry straw.”
Kohn's great gift is telling a story through its details. This can be daunting to the reader — without the violent acts or philosophical hyperventilating that might serve as dramatic landmarks, We Had a Dream can occasionally mire one in a Sargassan sea of tiny, grasping facts. But wedded to Kohn's other gift, for elegiac prose, the detail can also make his account novelistically vivid. When we meet Dr. Gordon, he is not just a stroke-ridden retiree but a man “smelling of Mentholatum and cursing at his wheelchair,” while his “high-octaned, leather-seated” 1989 Fleetwood Brougham, the “great, royal, heraldic vehicle . . . of a Motor City monarch,” sits idle in the driveway, its odometer stroke-frozen at 45,011 miles. We don't have to be told that the Stricklers are wedded to a careful domestic continuity; we already know they bought their Nesco electric roaster in 1949, and their Westinghouse range in 1955. Just as we know that before she earned her law degree in Maryland and her magna cum laude bachelor's in North Carolina, Elvira White grew up picking tomatoes on the Eastern shore, where her parents paid the rent in “hand-creased currency pulled from a fat glass jar,” for a home with an outhouse and a yard “valiantly ornamented” with marigolds set in “rusty coffee cans . . . the bottoms punched full of nail holes.”
How many reporters are assiduous enough to find out how the holes were punched in what kind of cans on someone's childhood front walk? The effect is more than virtuoso, because the details are not ornamental. In a book without an ostentatious moral, the attention to life's minutiae, this preponderance of small things, becomes a strong verdict in itself. Kohn presents a world where life is not lived in the abstract but through the senses, minute by minute, where race is the ubiquitous, but never the grandest, theme, and America's greatest social dilemma is resolved in back seats and over canasta games, where no one represents sides but everyone has them, where lives are not lived in the context of race. Instead, the question of race is everywhere expressed within the context of lives.
And so it turns out that Kohn is not kneeling at the altar of the God of What Might Have Been, after all. His god is the God of What Is. What Is is not always pretty, and what Kohn reveals about our racial utopia holds much to dismay the idealist: Nothing has turned out to be easy. At the same time, between the lines of We Had a Dream, there is food for hope. Elvira White mourns to Kohn how her aspirations as a writer have been thwarted because “All I know are short, angry sentences.” Yet her teenage son produces a graceful short story that transcends racial concerns. Dr. David Gordon at last reconciles with his son and blesses his interracial marriage, though he won't live to see the nuptials. For his part, Bruce, in the midst of being assaulted by the black gang in the shopping center, recalls an event from 1972, when a black woman being chased and beaten by the Grits was saved by Dr. Gordon's intercession. “Real bravery was like that,” he muses in reappraising his father's racial stand, “dull doings, but with a flurry now and then.”
As a prescription for America's half-met dream of integration, that's the most hopeful sentence yet.
Russ Rymer is the author of American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory, recently published by HarperCollins.
WE HAD A DREAM:
A Tale of the Struggle for Integration in America
By HOWARD KOHN
Simon & Schuster