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OpinionEssays

Make life great for everyone

The writer, left, with her mother, Joan W.

The writer, left, with her mother, Joan W. Collins; friend Kathleen Murphy, and the writer's sister, Patricia, with the two foster children for whom the Collins family temporarily cared for in the late 1950s, in front of their Levitt home in Westbury. Credit: Arthur C. Collins

I grew up in Westbury in a Levitt development. It was pretty much reserved for veterans. White veterans. No Blacks allowed. Jewish veterans and their families were on my block. My mother, who grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, was always aware that Jews were the “other” people. My parents’ thinking was somewhat radical, so my mother found it exciting to be exposed to people of different cultures.

My father grew up in Harlem and already had diverse friends. His mother was Jewish, his father Irish Catholic. He was taught that everyone’s the same under their skin. After moving into the Westbury house, my father read Levitt’s fine print and saw that only whites were allowed to buy houses. He was furious. He wanted to move, but they already had sunk all their money into moving there so we stayed.  (The only reason we could move there is because my father won a football pool for the down payment.) He was an artist, and we lived on a starving artist’s salary.

Our little income made it hard. I went to school without lunch. I would go to the cafeteria with my class and sit there. This apparently made the lunch ladies uncomfortable. They told me to rest my head down. I appreciate today’s free lunch and breakfast programs.

When I was about 5, my parents took in two Black foster children for respite for another foster family. One day, I took the 2-year-old in a stroller along our sidewalk. One neighbor opened her door and shouted, “Jeanie, get that [racial slur] out of here. Don’t bring her in front of our house.” I never told anyone. I thought I’d done something wrong.

My parents supported the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s. I remember seeing on TV federal troops escorting Black students into a Little Rock, Arkansas, high school in 1957. I was in first grade, didn’t enjoy school and thought, “I wish people didn’t want me to go to school!” 

During the Vietnam War era, my mother became a tax protester. I remember the FBI visiting to make sure she wasn’t subversive. My dad was a little more far out. He supported the Chicago Seven and donated artwork to their cause. One day, one of them called and said, “I hope your taxes are in order. [President Richard] Nixon has a White House enemies list, and they are using the IRS to go after them.” Sure enough, about three weeks later, he got a notice he was being audited.

I didn’t realize the full extent of racial hatred until I married a Black man. One time, a driver tried to run our car off the road but failed. Another time, a white woman scolded me when she saw my two mixed-race children. I’ve read about church bombings, three murdered civil rights workers and a white woman killed because she was driving civil rights workers.

Now, I am married to a white man. He gets a good pension from working a traditionally white man’s trade. Another benefit of white privilege.

When I hear the Make America Great Again slogan, I wonder which era they’re addressing. There were “great” times in the past, but not for all. If it wasn’t great for all, it wasn’t great.

Reader Jean Haughey lives in Bellport.

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