Barack Obama turns 50 on Thursday. Been there, done that, had the big birthday party. He was born in 1961, and like the president, I was also born in the slice of years between the very late 1950s and mid-1960s. We fall between the cracks of the baby boom generation and Gen X. We missed the thick of the civil rights movement, black power, women's liberation, Stonewall and Woodstock but are too old to be Gen Xers.
I don't remember where I was when JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. or Bobby Kennedy was shot. I didn't hear the "I Have a Dream" speech or see the March on Washington. I was no bigger than a hiccup when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. What I know about the movement, I heard from my parents or learned in school.
But I took advantage of those struggles and victories. My generation was the first to study next to white kids in the newly desegregated classrooms of the late 1960s and early '70s — and many of us traveled to school by way of court-ordered buses. We were the Integration Babies: When the doors opened, we stepped into an integrated world.
But not always comfortably.
From the South Side to Suburbia
My family was part of an early "black flight" movement to the suburbs in the late '60s. Swept away by the promise of the new American dream, my parents moved us from the South Side of Chicago to suburban Denver in 1969.
As we drove up to our new ranch house just west of Denver — so much larger than the apartment where we had lived with my grandparents in Chicago — I asked, "Daddy, do we have to share it with another family?"
My little sister was even more amazed: "Are we rich?"
Then we saw it. Somebody had written "Niggers Get Out" on the garage door and on the pavement on the driveway. Some of the neighbors — all white — were trying to scrub off the words before we arrived. But it was too late. My father wanted to get right back in the car and drive home to Chicago, but my mother — and the neighbors — convinced us to stay.
A few days later, when I started third grade, no one spoke to me at all for two weeks. I later found out that the principal had called a schoolwide assembly the Friday before I arrived to explain to my classmates that the school was getting its first black student. The other children were so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they said nothing at all. Finally a little girl with large brown eyes, freckles and pigtails asked if she could walk home from school with me. I exhaled, and she became my first friend, a friendship that has endured for more than 40 years.
In the years that followed, I went through every suburban rite of passage of a certain age and a certain class alongside the white kids: Girl Scout meetings, sleepovers, potlucks, weekend football games and tailgate parties, The Brady Bunch on Fridays, Summer Fun Day Camp, Winter Fun ski club, Steely Dan concerts and spin the bottle in dank, wood-paneled basements.
And then there were the questions. President Obama grew up as one of a small number of blacks on the island of Oahu. In his memoir, he recalls being asked whether his Kenyan father ate people. And as with many black Integration Babies, other kids wanted to touch his hair. Now I wish I'd charged every time one of my friends copped a feel.
I got used to answering other questions, too.
"Is that a tan?"
"Do you taste like chocolate?"
"Do you want to be called Negro, Afro-American, black or colored?"
("No." "You wanna try it?" " 'Colored' hasn't been widely used since Eisenhower was in office.")
The Price of Fitting In
And as they studied me, I did the same. That's how Integration Babies survived. We were watchful. We learned to observe the social landscape, dissect the rules, adapt, fit in. We flew under the radar, tried not to rock the boat and became diplomats, perpetual middle children, skilled at the kind of compromise President Obama has recently been criticized for.
But fitting in had a consequence: You become a stranger to the black world, like an expat living in hostile, foreign country. You're different but not so wonderful because you talk white and can't dance. You've drunk the Caucasian Kool-Aid; you think you're one of them. You're an oreo, a white girl.
Integration Babies found ways to straddle two worlds — and thank God for Stevie Wonder, Right On magazine, trips back to Chicago, What's Happening! and Jack and Jill. And we overcompensated. I grew the biggest Afro — bigger than the one I've seen in photographs of President Obama in his younger days.
I might have missed the Angela Davis era, but I had her hair in high school. As I grew older, I wasn't just black; I was blacker than thou. Though my father was half Filipino, I never spoke about it — ever. I was just black, black, black.
The payoff would come for Integration Babies when we started our careers. It did for me: I took advantage of having grown up alongside white kids — now they were my co-workers. I fit right in. I wasn't awed by them, afraid of them or angry at them. These were the kids I went to school with, except grown up. I could talk to them and talk like them. I was just as good as they were.
At least I thought so. But growing up with whites made many Integration Babies naive. When we encountered racism, it caught us off guard, and the pain cut deep.
It did for me. Right after college in the early 1980s, I started my first day as a researcher at a large magazine company where I had shone as an intern the summer before. I entered my cubicle with straight A's, a degree in journalism and a portfolio of clips. But by the end of the week, it was clear that something was off. Chilly conversations, limp handshakes, no eye contact — it was third grade all over again.
I later found out that the Friday before I started, one of the senior editors had jokingly announced to the staff that I was an "affirmative action" hire. Never mind that nearly every other person in the company was either from the editor-in-chief's hometown, had gone to his Ivy League college or knew his wife. They had their own affirmative action — the friends-and-family plan. But because I was out of their network, I didn't deserve to be there.
Of course, those who came before me had been whipped, lynched, kicked, beaten, hosed and chased by German shepherds so that I could have an education and a job. Certainly I could survive having my feelings hurt. But that day, some part of me shriveled up and died.
I understood that when you're black, you really do have to work twice as hard in life, even when everyone else is half as good, no matter who you sat next to in school. Also true: Nobody wants to hear it. To survive and thrive, you have to get over it, suck it up and move on.
With a smile.
You keep your emotions in check. You learn to be cool because everyone knows what happens when you don't. In the new book A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother, Janny Scott says that the president perfected self-control as a child in Indonesia. He learned to tolerate and ignore racist taunts from his classmates, rather than respond, if he wanted them to stop.
The Integrated Truth at 50
We Integration Babies learned hard lessons and have the emotional battle scars to prove it. But like the civil rights warriors who came before us, we have kicked opened the door to the next generation. More and more black people are moving to the suburbs — but not the all-white burbs of my childhood. Many 21st-century suburbs are a melting pot of people of all colors from all over the world. Others — such as those outside Chicago, Philly, New York and Atlanta — are mostly black and sometimes more affluent than the communities that surround them.
My children, who are about the same age as Sasha and Malia, have never been "onlies." We live in a mixed-race community, and they go to schools that have a little bit of everyone. My son's middle school is 25 percent black, 33 percent white, 35 percent Latino and 5 percent Asian — and the principal is an African-American woman.
So, to the Integration Baby-in-chief, I say: Welcome to the sixth decade. With age comes bad knees, reading glasses and colonoscopies, but also wisdom. The gift of turning 50 means accepting every part of you and having the grace to do the same for others. Was the president raised by a white woman? Yes. Is he still proudly African American? Yes.
Was I ever hired to fill a quota? Yes. Did I work hard and excel on my own? Yes. Am I an affirmative action oreo who talks white, listens to both rock and rap and can't do the Electric Slide? Yes. And?
Linda Villarosa is the director of the journalism program at the City College of New York and a regular contributor to The Root.