For much of this month I was experiencing flashes of déjà vu.
It’s come from watching the demonstrators in some towns across the country and reading some of the commentary and reader responses in the newspapers and the blogs protesting the Obama administration’s efforts to temporarily shelter the children fleeing the gang violence ravaging their Central American countries.
I’d felt an insistent mental tugging that I’ve seen these people and heard these people and read what these people were saying before.
Now I’ve realized I was flashing back to that period from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s – the years encompassing my childhood and young adulthood – when the scene and soundtrack of American life repeatedly included adults in some cities and towns angrily demanding that children be stopped from “invading” where they lived.
Then, of course, the skin color of those children was, by and large, darker—more my shade of brown—than that of the children who’ve fled from elsewhere to America’s southwestern border. And those children, like me, spoke English. And those children, like me, had been born in the United States, descended from parents and grandparents and, most likely, a long line of ancestors who had been born in the United States. The children I’m remembering from those years, in other words, were American citizens of long lineage.
But none of that shielded those children from their adult antagonists. Because those adults considered them, and their parents and all the other Americans who looked like them – who looked like me – to not be American citizens in any sense of that concept. They – we – were “illegal” by dint of skin color and previous condition of servitude.
Those adults declared that the children who looked like me had “illegally” crossed boundaries to go where they did not belong, where they were not wanted. And, in fact, in some places, like Little Rock, Ark. and New Orleans, La. and Cambridge, Md. and so on, the children who looked like me were breaking what had been “law.” In other places, like Chicago and Boston and so on, they were challenging long-standing customs and bureaucratic rules which had the force of law.
As with the “border children” of today, the children of yesteryear who looked like me were also called “criminals,” “diseased,” a “pestilence” by mobs of adults at whose fringes lurked men with guns they carried to buck up the courage they needed to harass children.
Then, as today, it was the task of the pundits and the politicians who agreed with the children’s adult tormenters to speak of obedience to law and custom, and the need to defend property values, and the “tyranny” of “Washington” in order to simultaneously obscure and justify the spectacle of adults threatening children.
Yes, I have seen those adults who’ve been so much in the news this month waging war on children before, because the virus they’re carrying makes all the people infected by it look and sound the same across time and place.
But, as I remember happening a half-century ago, some Americans today have also chosen kindness over cruelty, decency over indecency. Undoubtedly, they’re the ones who understand that the mid-20th century “invasion” into the rest of America of the children who looked like me and the boundary crossing of the children who came behind them redeemed the American Dream and saved American society by illuminating a fundamental human truth: When you open wider the gates of opportunity, the benefits to all stretch far beyond imagining.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.