State of the Unity

I resumed teaching my current-events class for seniors at Macy's in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall this week. It had broken for a long stretch -- more than two months -- and I, for one, was eager to reconvene and pick up where we'd left off in 2013. Class isn't really what this is; I don't teach, just moderate the hour-long whirlwind conversations this chiefly African American group has about politics, race, government, culture, or some combination thereof. This means that we talk a lot about President Obama.

Week to week we track his fortunes with great interest, but also real anxiety; the setbacks he suffers regularly at the hands of the media or the nefarious Tea Party or his own judgment feel like our own. Of course we also claim his triumphs, but there haven't been too many of those, at least not clear-cut or widely reported ones. Overall, the age of Obama has been a kind of muddle that this group has taken upon itself to clarify and deconstruct. We don't solve the country's problems, or our own, but the attempt is always energizing, if occasionally exhausting. But we always recover; many people in the group say, more than half-seriously, that they have no choice.

Yesterday I felt something had shifted, or more accurately, downshifted. I expected the opposite. Here we were meeting the morning after Obama's fifth State of the Union address, something that would give us plenty to talk about. And after so long away, I assumed the class would be practically chomping at the bit to review the events of the last couple of months -- Syria and Mandela, for starters. But the room was oddly subdued.

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We talked about the address, and other things, but the fire had visibly dimmed. The objections and critiques were a bit rote. Oddest of all was how subdued Wyton was. Wyton is the sole male student of the class and our historical conscience, always interjecting into our heated conversations philosophical questions such as, "But who are the American people?" Each week he comes on time and carries a briefcase. But on Wednesday he sauntered in late, without a familiar urgency in his step. Throughout the class he sat, hands folded on top of the table, as quiet as I've ever see him.

Was this mid-winter blahs, or something deeper? After class, walking to the parking lot, Wyton admitted to feeling something I thought he never would feel: hopelessness. He wasn't ready to jump off a building or anything like that. He was fatigued, suddenly aware that changes for which he'd been advocating since the '60s were not imminent, or even being discussed, in the Age of Obama that is now three-quarters done. The changes Wyton has in mind may not come at all. Obama's Tuesday speech, which everyone agreed was fine, was competent enough but had sort of kept its nose to the ground instead of soaring or even trying to soar, had driven home the point. For Wyton, the letdown had become personal.

I understood. But I found myself less concerned with Obama than with Wyton and his state of mind, which I realized I depend on to bolster my own optimism at times like these. I depend on him and this entire class of elders to tell the truth, but to warn me away from despair by avoiding it themselves. The unspoken contract of the current events class is: if my students feel part of the story and part of black history, I am part of it, too. All of us matter, or none of us do.

I had never contemplated the second thing. I never really want to. In the parking lot, I gave Wyton some parting words of encouragement -- keep on keeping on, something like that. He stood holding his briefcase by his side and looking unconvinced. But he also seemed more than a little encouraged by my somewhat lame attempt to pull him back from the brink, to pull him back into the story for my sake and the sake of all of us. The story continues next week. Hopefully.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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