Paul Prather

Old interviews show how far we've come

Because I'm in my car a lot, and because I can't stomach much of what's currently on the radio, I buy more than my share of audio books.

They're usually expensive, so I tend to shop for bargains.

Last week, I picked up a cheap copy of Studs Terkel's Voices of Our Time, an anthology of interviews from his Peabody Award-winning radio show on Chicago's WFMT. The four dozen excerpts span the 1950s to the 1980s.

What I rediscovered from the first of the six CDs made me feel better, in retrospect, about who and where we Americans are today.

I'd been pretty pessimistic lately about the state of the country.

We've fallen into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The presidential race continues to be divisive and mean-spirited. We're mired in wars for which there are no tenable solutions.

When I turn on the television to catch the news, I find hardly any news — only the same squads of apoplectic nitwits screaming half-baked accusations at each other. To steal a line from John Prine, it's enough to make a grown man blow up his own TV.

I'd begun to think matters are about the worst I've seen them.

Terkel reminded me that they're not.

In a 1959 piece, he pontificates with Mortimer Adler, the historian of philosophy, about what constitutes "the educated man."

That term, "the educated man," grabbed my attention. I'm not, and I don't aspire to be, politically correct. But there's no mention in their conversation about what might constitute an educated woman. There's no mention of women, period.

I realize that in the past, "man" sometimes was used as an assumed reference to both genders. That doesn't appear to be the case here.

Instead, it's as if the possibility of a woman being genuinely educated, of possessing a first-rate intellect and the potential for meaningful leadership, is simply a non-issue. It's as if women's brains aren't even worth discussing.

When these guys say "man," they mean "man."

Neither Terkel nor Adler is a provincial bigot. Both clearly are erudite. But they're products of the assumptions of their period.

As I listened, I thought about the English course I'm teaching this fall for a state university. Of my 20 students, 14 are women. In universities today, this is the rule. Women always have gone to college, of course, but now they often constitute the majority of students, and they regularly are honored among the best and brightest.

More noteworthy than the interview with Adler were Terkel's talks from the early 1960s with writer James Baldwin and gospel legend Mahalia Jackson.

Baldwin explains his long, self-imposed exile to Europe.

Growing up in America, he says, created in him such self-loathing that he came to despise everything associated with his blackness. He refused to listen to jazz or the blues, or to eat watermelon. His primary emotion, he says, was debilitating shame.

Only by fleeing the country as a young man could he find out who he really was.

More wrenching still is Terkel's interview with Jackson. After concerts, she says, white people line up to hug her and compliment her. Outside the concert hall, the same people won't speak to her on the street.

When she shops at a department store, she can't order a sandwich or a soft drink at the lunch counter. She can't take a taxi home.

The pain in her voice is palpable as she recounts hearing her husband constantly called "boy." She tells of seeing children jailed and attack dogs loosed on protesters.

She's a follower of Martin Luther King Jr., and she believes in his non-violent approach to the civil rights movement. But turning the other cheek is so hard. It's one thing to turn the other cheek, she says; it's entirely another to get knocked to the ground again and again, and each time respond with love.

Jackson says she prays constantly that God will guard her own heart from being consumed by hatred for whites.

That was Jackson's daily American reality in 1963.

As I listened, I kept thinking about how far our society has traveled in such a comparatively short time. Sure, we've still got problems. Big problems.

But consider who we're picking to solve them. The 2008 Democratic nominee for president is a black man. The Democratic runner-up was a woman. The Republican nominee for vice president is a woman. The secretary of state is a black woman.

That's true progress.

For all our faults, sooner or later we Americans tend to find the right paths.