Friday, June 13, 2008

For Monday 16 June ...

Be sure to click through "read more" for Monday's discussion story, from the 12 June NYT and Peter Applebome. Nice and short but very powerful:

Reflecting, in a Place of Racial Tolerance, the Long Road Traveled, and to Come

MONTCLAIR, N.J.

The Obama yard sign in front of the house where Don and Julia Miller integrated Stanford Place back in 1962 tells one story.

The cherry bomb and trash dumped on the lawn when they moved in and the chorus of “Old Black Joe” directed at the person who sold them the house tells another.

The letter of apology that came in the mail on Wednesday from the person who lived next door when they moved in — and who moved out not long afterward — tells a third.

Our real stories of race and place are almost always more complicated than we find ways to tell, especially on suburban streets invariably cloaked in dopey clich├ęs of suburban conformity, as if the people there were somehow a different species than their more worthy urban brethren.

So who knows if anything will become of the screenplay written by Jason Lemire, who grew up across the street, mowing the Millers’ lawn and worshiping Mr. Miller as an important artist, and who figured their story could resonate beyond Stanford Place.

But when more than 200 people packed the auditorium at the Montclair Art Museum on Wednesday night to celebrate Mr. Miller’s life and reflect on the first public reading of the screenplay, “Foot Soldier: The Don Miller Story,” it was one of those rare moments when past and present could artfully merge.

Not many suburbs have as interesting a racial history as Montclair, whose population is about one-third black, and which has not always lived up to its current image as a liberal Obamaville. Mr. Miller, who grew up there and died in 1993 at the age of 69, had his first art exhibition at the age of 12 at Montclair’s Y.W.C.A., one of three segregated Y’s in town. Back then and for many years afterward, the movie theater was segregated, too: blacks in the balcony, whites below.

Still, when the Millers, who were living in East Orange at the time, decided to look for a house in Montclair, the civil rights movement was beginning to brew. They looked at one house in a white neighborhood, and before they could buy it, neighbors purchased it so they could not.

When they found the house on Stanford Place, the owner held firm despite angry neighbors who stood out in the snow taunting him in song about the race of the buyers. The Millers’ arrival was rocky until one of the police officers in town, who also was black, read the riot act to the neighbors. Some moved out. Most stayed, and, in the way things evolve, soon realized that their new neighbors were just that, and life quite amicably moved on.

For both Millers, race remained central to their work. She headed the African-American studies program at Seton Hall. He infused the children’s books he illustrated with black faces as well as white, and created the powerful paintings of African masks and children from Congo to Newark to Jamaica, some of which still hang on the walls in their home.

The assignment of Mr. Miller’s life, a 56-foot-long mural of the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that was unveiled in 1986, when his birthday was first celebrated as a national holiday, is on permanent display at the main public library in Washington. And during the two years he worked on it, civil rights luminaries visited the old ballroom he rented, since it was too big for his airy third-floor studio here on Stanford Place. (Rosa Parks let Mr. Miller know he had the wrong route sign on her famous bus; he changed it to what you can see today, Cleveland Ave.)

Looking back, Mrs. Miller, 79, and her son Eric, 51, see enormous progress. How could they not? But they also see the many folds in the post-civil rights fabric, like the way Montclair is now somewhat segregated as much by income as by race.

“There’s been an influx of yuppies who see this as a great liberal town, intellectual, lots of cultural things going on,” she said. “They really don’t want to hear anything negative about it.”

Now, she said, she and her husband, who paid $20,000 for their house in 1962, probably could not afford to buy in Montclair, and the black middle-class community that once existed no longer plays the nurturing and mentoring role it once did.

“There was this viable, vital middle-class black community in Montclair, who, in some ways, looked at the people uptown and thought: ‘We don’t need that. We’ve got our clubs, our churches, our groups, our professionals,’ ” she said. “You don’t see the same thing now. In some ways, I’ll say integration did a lot of harm.”

Does she want to go back? Of course not, but here in the Obama moment, on Don Miller’s night, the people with their eyes open saw a tale still in progress, a world as rich and complex as the African art, and political posters suspended in the warm sun in Don Miller’s loft, his stiff brushes in old tobacco cans as if waiting for him to again come home.

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