It is a special brand of tragic timing that took Studs Terkel and Barack Obama’s grandmother away as the whole world tuned in to America’s big election.
Madelyn Dunham, whom Obama called a “quiet hero” in his life, died Nov. 3 in Hawaii at age 86. One of her final acts, according to news reports, was to vote for her grandson by absentee ballot as he sought to become America’s first black president. Or, more appropriately, America’s first openly biracial president. As much as we media folks use the shorthand of America’s one-drop rule to define anyone with even one drop of black blood to be black, Obama has not run away from the white mother and grandparents who raised him.
By all accounts Obama’s grandparents sound like the sort of devoted, hard-working and sacrificing Americans that Terkel, who died Oct. 31 at age 96, wrote prize-winning books about.
You could take other Chicago writers of his stature, such as James T. Farrell, Mike Royko or Nelson Algren, and say they gave the city a voice. Terkel, a pioneer in TV talk and later a syndicated national radio star at Chicago’s WFMT, preferred to let people speak for themselves. He lent his ear to the poetry he heard in the voices of ordinary people and injected lyrical vigor into the seemingly dry science of oral history.
Terkel tackled the vexing issue of race in his 1992 book, “Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession,” in the same way he tackled other gigantic topics — such as World War II, the Great Depression, urban life and how Americans feel about work. He interviewed a cross-section of people who live day-to-day with the consequences of decisions that the big shots make downtown.
One memory grabbed me at the time and still stands out. He describes a woman who was driving down the street in a black neighborhood with which she was not familiar. “The people at the corners were all gesticulating at her,” Terkel wrote. “She was very frightened, turned up the windows, and drove determinedly. She discovered after several blocks, she was going the wrong way on a one-way street and they were trying to help her. Her assumption was they were blacks and out to get her.”
The woman was quite unlike Studs. For one, he didn’t drive. He depended, he would say, “on the kindness of strangers.” And on his neighbors, of whom I was proud to be one in the 1970s and ’80s on Chicago’s north side.
“Curiosity did not kill this cat,” Studs would say, when describing what he wanted to be his epitaph. Curiosity led him to believe that every living soul has a worthwhile story to tell to an interviewer who was willing to offer them a friendly ear.
The story of the white woman in the black neighborhood came to mind when Obama recounted in his own major speech on race how hurt he felt when his grandma expressed fear years ago about young black males on a bus. Obama’s critics mocked his “throwing grandma under the bus” to defend his association with the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But it was not Studs’ style to dismiss anyone’s feelings. He was too curious.
As a result he helped me — through his books on race, the Great Depression and his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Good War” — to see how people unlike myself, such as that frightened white woman, see the world. And to discover how much we have in common behind our fears, anger, resentments and suspicions.
Clarence Page is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.