Growing up in Crown Heights in the 1950’s, the child of two teachers who had come out of dire poverty to scrape into the middle class, I viewed politics and government as abstractions, frightening and remote. Between my parents whispered talks of McCarthyite purges, the mushroom clouds I saw on tv, and the shelter drills we had in school, politics was scary. Televised pictures of Eisenhower and Nixon, who looked nothing like the Jewish, Italian and Black People in our neighborhood, made it remote. I was told by my parents never to sign a petition, the Constitution was something we memorized in school and trying to become President seemed absurd for people in my section of Brooklyn.
So how did I become “American,” attached to the possibilities, mythologies, and opportunities the nation offered to people of modest means who came from immigrant backgrounds?
It was sports and music which made me American. Watching Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider play center field; watching Carl Furillo, who had the same face as many of my Italian friends, throw bullets from right field; listening to Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers; Dion and the Belmont’s, and Little Anthony and the Imperials, kids who came out of neighborhoods just like mIne, create beautiful harmonies and sell millions of record; watching Giants linebacker Sam Huff try to tackle the great Cleveland running back Jim Brown! These were things that brought fame and fortune to kids like me, things that showed that anything was possible in America even if you grew up with very little or were stalked by ancient hatreds, such as the anti-semitism that was so much a part of my parents childhoods.
By the time I was 10 or 11, i knew that though I loved music, sports was going to be my ticket to “success” that mysterious thing that everyone in my neighborhood said you were supposed to aspire to. Hitting and throwing the ball farther than the other kids; dragging five of them down a football field when I carried the ball, made me realize that I had something which could get me entry into a world of opportunity beyond my neighborhood, something I realized every time I went to Columbia University to watch my cousin Stephen, who lived downstairs, play basketball.
Because of sports and music, I not only believed in the promise of America, I believe it applied to ME, something I transformed into reality by becoming the captain and number 1 singles player on the Columbia tennis team, building on skills I learned on the tennis courts of Lincoln Terrace Park on the border of Crown Heights and Brownsville.
Later in life, I would study and experience things that undermined my romantic portrait of US history. I would become a student of Race in US history and a fierce anti-racist. But I would never lose the memory of what it was like to be a child in Crown Heights and thrill to the harmonies of Frankie Lyman or Dion and the Belmont’s , the beauty of a Willie Mays basket catch, or the magic of a double pump layup by Elgin Baylor. Those images and possibilities became my Constitution and Bill of Rights, markers of my American identity.
They remain so to this day