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Bill White: Were the good old days really so good? Not if you were Black or gay.

Jeff Conaway, Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta and Stockard Channing star in “Grease,” a musical set in the 1950s. While many older Americans are nostalgic for the 1950s and '60s, those 'good old days' weren't so good for everyone. (Paramount Pictures/Contributed photo)
Jeff Conaway, Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta and Stockard Channing star in “Grease,” a musical set in the 1950s. While many older Americans are nostalgic for the 1950s and ’60s, those ‘good old days’ weren’t so good for everyone. (Paramount Pictures/Contributed photo)
Bill White

I was part of a mass Zoom call several weeks ago, and the presenter broke the ice by asking us to share a smell we remember from our childhood.

What came to mind for the people who responded were the kinds of positive things you might imagine: favorite cooking smells or beautiful odors from nature.

Me? I thought of the way the mosquito truck smelled as it spewed white DDT smoke around my Levittown neighborhood, with me and other kids chasing after it.

I did not share this that evening, since it didn’t seem to be in keeping with the positive tone of our meeting. But it did remind me that the nostalgia so many older people feel for the 1950s and 60s has more to do with selective perception than with the reality of the good old days.

Don’t get me wrong. I have lots of wonderful memories from those times, too. I was a straight, white, Protestant male in a nice, middle-class neighborhood, with loving parents and good schools. My dad had a steady job, and my mom stayed at home and took care of me and my sisters. If she wanted something more from her life, she never let on, at least to us.

The American Dream was alive, for some of us. Our house was tiny, but it was affordable, and my parents had every reason to expect that their kids could have a better life than they did, something I’m not at all sure about today. For that matter, as far as I know, the DDT didn’t harm me, although we later discovered it wreaked havoc on birds.

But I have enough empathy to recognize that the good old days weren’t so good if you were Black or gay. They weren’t so good if your community was choking with industrial smoke or horribly polluted lakes and rivers. They weren’t so good if you had mental illness or a lot of other illnesses and conditions that kept our life spans much shorter until we began discovering cures and vaccines. They weren’t so good if you were a woman whose personal ambitions extended beyond being a wife and mother or whose professional goals extended beyond being a secretary or receptionist.

I had no clue about any of those things, of course. I didn’t even find out about what happened to our model suburban community’s first Black family — a professional couple with three kids, subjected to extended harassment and violence for ruining our perfect record of lily whiteness — until one of my former schoolmates gave me a book about it decades later.

In my defense, I was 5 years old when that family bought their home. But it’s another reminder that the reality of the good old days sometimes clashed with our warm memories.

Still, we as a society learned from those experiences, albeit slowly and grudgingly. We began integrating our schools and attempting to level the playing field for young people whose race, ethnicity or public-school shortcomings had put them at a disadvantage when they applied to college. We committed ourselves to addressing discrimination in employment and housing. We began cleaning up our air and water in many places where they had been terribly fouled. We began to recognize that everyone had an equal right to pursue their vision of happiness, whatever their gender or sexual orientation. Hateful speech became socially unacceptable, except among consenting bigots.

In short, we moved forward, as humans have done since they were wearing cave bear skins and hunting wooly mammoths.

That said, progress isn’t always pretty. We’ve become much better at finding ways to kill one another, not just in war, but in private disputes and public massacres. The tradeoff for limitless access to information is that some people will take advantage of that to spout lies at firehose levels — and some consumers won’t know the difference. The tradeoff for trying to discourage hateful speech is that some people will overreact to things we’ve done and said without considering context or maintaining a sese of proportion.

But I believe the greatest danger today is in following leaders and judges who seem determined to take us backward, abandoning advances in science, social justice, education, health care and much more in favor of an imagined past in which other people knew their proper place and weren’t allowed to steal our jobs, our neighborhoods, our comfortable sense of what a real American should look and act like.

And they seem more than willing to promote violence as an appropriate remedy for their grievances, real and imagined. That’s not who we are. Is it?

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt disturbed by what I’m seeing and hearing around me. But it’s the first time I’ve truly felt despair over the kind of country we are becoming — and the worse kind of lawless country we may become if a lot more people don’t shed their apathy or ignorance.

What am I most nostalgic for right now? A sense that whatever our political differences about the best way forward for our nation, our leaders truly care about our collective welfare, not just their own. Committed to governing, not posturing. To solutions, not slogans. To truth, not lies.

To forward, not backward.

Bill White can be reached at whitebil1974@gmail.com. His X handle is whitebil.

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