I wasn't quite two years old when John Kennedy was shot and killed. I have no idea what I was doing that day. I grew up to know him mostly as the first and most ominous of that terrible triptych of murders that bracketed the roiling '60s--Kennedy, King and Kennedy again.
Awful as the murders were, I fused them in my mind with all the good the '60s produced, the many calls to consciousness that ranged from ending legal segregation to protesting war to fighting poverty as a national priority. I decided somewhere along the line, by the late '70s or so, that the tragedies were simply part of the price of the righteous changes and upheaval that would, of course, establish a new American reality that would permanently evolve.
John Kennedy was the bridge from the old world to the new modern one, a world that even he resisted at first--despite being Catholic and an outsider that way, he was white, wealthy and privileged--but came to regard as inevitable and right. He was still coming to that conclusion when he was gunned down in Dallas just over 48 years ago. That Kennedy himself was on the verge, as the country was, was poetic to me and further proof that his death was part of the painful but ultimately successful birth of a new nation; he had simply died in the throes of that labor, while I had emerged (relatively) safely on the other side of a very difficult process. My generation would take it from there.
I therefore always saw myself as living in the afterglow of a historical moment, a crucible, from which all people had benefited and experienced fundamental change, even those people who didn't like Kennedy or the change he was starting to advocate. Today I see that I was also living in the poisonous fallout of a moment that exposed the worst of America to itself. That worst part hasn't exactly been rehabbed.
To the contrary, almost fifty years after Kennedy was cut down, the racial and economic elitism that the president was forced to admit was undermining the country and its future has us by the tail once again (or maybe it never let us go). The president currently in the White House is a member of my post-bridge generation who certainly owes his success to the good changes wrought by the '60s, starting with the dismantling of obvious racial barriers. Yet he seems unable or tragically reluctant to acknowledge that we are again at a moment where we need our national leader to articulate a vision of where we need to go and who we must be.
We again need a path out of this darkness of inequality, and Obama has not forged one; the best he does is cheer the protesting masses from the sidelines. Thus far he has not taken the risk that Kennedy--and King, and Kennedy again-- felt he had no choice about taking. The modern world has its downsides, to say the least.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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