I have early childhood memories of looking through beautiful pictures in what I remember as a large table-top book entitled “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.” This and other books in my family’s home traced the details of the Kennedy progeny. I would spend hours soaking up these images like a child reads a picture book over and over again. The enduring photograph of Caroline with her head on her father’s shoulder has stayed in my memory across the decades. This was my father and I.
In the Irish tradition, my mother is a wonderful storyteller. I was enraptured as she relayed stories about the Kennedy family, the deep faith of the matriarch in the face of losing three sons and a daughter, the significance of the first Irish Catholic President, little John John and Caroline, and of course the tragic assassinations. I became so familiar with the images and stories, it was as if these people were part of my own family. The stories were told with such ease, emotion and detail, I felt as though we were there in their home, by their side, sharing the laughter and the tragedy together.
There was simultaneous pride and sadness expressed when my parents spoke of the Kennedy’s. Over the years, as I continued to regularly view the pictures and read the details of their lives, I began indulging my young imagination and playing tricks with the final chapters. As I poured over the beloved compilation of photographs, I would close the book before the fateful November day and pretend that President Kennedy was still alive and that Caroline and John John still had their father.
I saw myself reflected in this family. The children were only a few years older than me. As they grew and entered adolescence, donning the attire of the seventies, I could see my own bell-bottom jeans and long hair. I grew up feeling a connection to people who once lived in the White House, who led our country, and were held in high regard across our nation. And this made me feel good about myself and to take pride in my identity. Interestingly, the economic class differences between my family and the Kennedy’s were irrelevant. In fact, I remember later in life, when I learned about their wealth, I was surprised, because I thought they were just like me.
They looked like my family and I, they honored the same heritage, prayed to the same God, modeled the same cultural values and shared the same racial and ethnic group membership. I couldn’t have said at the time how important this was. However, I can recall today the deep sense of comfort and belonging I felt as a result of these pervasive images throughout my youth. I can still list all of Joe and Rose’s 9 children by name and birth order and do the same with Robert and Ethel’s 11 children. A shared joy with my mother is conferring about the details of the latest Kennedy biography or headline and we have grieved together over the family’s many losses.
I would not have been able to say at the time that this connection with the Kennedy’s was also based on race. I was not aware of my own whiteness and thus the positive impact of seeing images of members of my own race reflected in these affirming and esteemed pictures. However, in graduate school, when I began to study the civil rights movement, I started to realize that I knew very little about the details of this iconic effort that changed the landscape of our country. How could I not know more of Dr. King’s speeches, the events in Birmingham and Montgomery, or the March on Washington? Why did I not know the same level of detail about the children of Coretta and Martin? The attention and focus I paid to learning about the Kennedy’s soon transferred to extensive erudition about the civil rights movement, the work of the Reverend Dr. King and in turn the many other individuals who led this struggle. Touring the south and retracing the steps of the movement, I found myself in greater alignment with these efforts than those of the happenings in Hyannis. And I felt a deep sense of loss at not acquiring this important history at a younger age.
Today I can reconcile this journey with the trappings of our society. I understand how a young white, middle class, Irish Catholic growing up in the 1960’s in Colorado may have learned the history of some people and not others. However, I can’t justify how this continues to occur today.
Like much of the country, I fell in love with the Kennedy’s, with the hope they inspired and the possibilities they manifested. I understand, as I turn 50 this year, that the images and stories put forth about this inspiring family were configured to sustain a certain image and austerity that reaffirmed how a majority of people thought our society wanted to be seen. Alternatively, other stories and images were not promoted.
Today I have a large picture book of President Obama’s inauguration. I wonder at the beauty and grace of his family. In many ways, largely because of their multi-racial and multi-ethnic heritage, their middle class roots, and their sustained and equitable partnership in marriage, President Obama and First Lady Michelle, along with their striking children Sasha and Malia provide an even closer and more realistic reflection of our society’s experience of family than the Kennedy’s ever did.
Fifty years since 1963 marks several important anniversaries including the assassination of Medgar Evers, Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington, and the bombing of the Birmingham church and the loss of four little girls. On the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death, I have spent time reflecting on his enduring legacy. While he may have initially felt the actions of African Americans in the south to be an irritating distraction to his larger agenda, and although he spent the better part of his presidency ignoring the struggle for racial equality and dissuading protesters from organizing while he, himself, avoided a position on integration, in time, he began to realize the critical issues of injustice and initiated what would become the nation’s Civil Rights Act. I’d like to think that his awareness of racial privilege would have continued to develop over the years and that perhaps, in greater company with Dr. King, President Kennedy would have become a leader on racial equality. I can imagine him partnering with his brother Bobby and Dr. King on efforts that would perhaps resemble President Obama’s reflections of how our country can be as Lincoln reminded us “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
And there are times when I let these new chapters unfold and I dream that these young leaders of a different time continued into old age and are now seated around a table as advisors to their own legacy while President Obama listens intently and perhaps feels just a bit less alone in his vision of what is possible.