John F Kennedy at a press conference in August 1963. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Where were you when JFK was shot?

Bonnie Greer remembers how “Mom and Apple Pie America” came to an end with the assassination of John F Kennedy fifty years ago.

The question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is becoming one of those archetypal measures of age, place etc. There are more people now who can’t answer than who can because either they were too young or they weren’t born.  But I can answer. I know.

A lot has been said about us baby boomers, mainly because most of us are still alive. Humans on the whole have never lived as long and as healthy as us, nor been as wealthy and active. It was all set up to be like this by our parents. We were the hoped-for babies after the catastrophe of total war and genocide. Our births would erase the horror of man’s inhumanity to man and so we were given golden childhoods. We boomers were brought up in a sunny Fifties and early Sixties “everything-for-the-kids” time.

Fathers and mothers were just that – with all of the safety/coddling and security/overprotection those two words imply if you’re old enough to remember “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” or the original “Mickey Mouse Club” or Alfred Hitchcock scaring the hell out of everyone weekly on TV.

Black, white, Latino, rich, poor, no matter, all of our parents tried their best to make our lives as sweet and as safe as possible. Yes, we had the threat of atomic annihilation hanging over our heads – “duck and cover” and the shrill alarm that went off every Wednesday afternoon to tell us to prepare for “the Russians”.

Protecting us from Khrushchev and his minions was an old guy in the White House who was like a grandfather and his wife Mamie who wore pearls all of the time and smiled a lot. How could we know that President Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander in WW2? We weren’t around then, so who cared? That made John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts mine and my fellow baby boomers’ first president.

We were kids and young teens during his campaign and so didn't know much about the politics. I’m from Chicago and my hometown played a huge part overtly and covertly (nothing’s ever straight forward in Chi-town ) in getting him elected. His picture was everywhere. I was a young black girl with a dad who’d grown up in “Mississippi goddamn” as Nina Simone called it so I watched the Civil Rights stuff in the south on TV with a particular interest.  

All that mattered and at the same time it didn’t.

JFK seemed to be a breath of fresh air, a new deal. Maybe he could bring equality – help little black kids like me go to school in the south without an escort from the National Guard. Plus he was young, cute, his wife “Jackie” was beautiful and young and wore fab clothes and they had a sweet little girl, Caroline, and Mrs JFK was about to have a baby. If you’re a typical teenage girl – and I was – what’s not to like?

I had just turned 15 the week before the assassination. Chicago is in the same time zone as Dallas. I was at school in the middle of a lesson, Latin, I think. It was a girls’ school, the last fee-paying school that our dad could afford. The following year I would have to transfer to the local high school, leaving all my girlfriends behind. I was very focused because I didn’t know what my education would be like after the following June. In addition, I was one of a handful of black girls there. It wasn’t easy.

Suddenly, we were all called to assembly. I walked past an open door and peered into the empty classroom. I saw one of the nuns crying. I had never seen that before. Not a good sign. Had the Pope died or something?

After we sat down, we were told that the President had been shot. One of my friends (I was going to say “black friends” but we had no white friends) asked the principal if we black people were now going to go back into slavery.  It was a stupid question and embarrassing, too, but for a second I knew that all of us black girls had asked that inside of ourselves. We finished with a prayer and then were dismissed for the day.

It was raining outside, just like in a corny movie, and people were crying in the street. It was lunchtime and folks were just milling around in a daze. Some guy tried to hit on me and I told him off. He hadn't heard the news.

When I got home, Mamma was in front of the TV. Suddenly, Walter Cronkite, the most respected journalist in America – in short, God – announced that the President had just died. And I still remember this: Cronkite looked behind his right shoulder at the clock on the wall, turned back to camera, and slowly took off his glasses. Mamma and I broke down.

JFK was assassinated live on lunchtime TV. Lee Harvey Oswald – his supposed assassin – was gunned down – on live TV, too. Somebody else – we figured – pulled all of this off. Somebody Big.

My generation – whether left , right, or nothing – started developing a deep, deep distrust of “The Official Version”.  What Ed Snowden discovered doesn’t surprise a boomer one bit, whether they admit or not. We’re all conspiracy junkies. And we’re all a bit crazy, too. Because our golden childhoods got literally blown away. While we were at school.

“Mom and Apple Pie America” ceased to be on 22 November, 1963 at about 1pm CST right after our sandwich, apple, and milk.

I was there. I saw the end. Like Jim Morrison sang.

 

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

Andy Mitchell/Wikimedia
Show Hide image

In the Outback, the waiters come from East Grimsby

One of the many great things about Australia is a genuine, if slightly abrasive egalitarianism.

The atmosphere in the Red Ochre Grill is distinctly chilly – not exactly what you would expect in the middle of a desert. There was an early-bird discount of 20 per cent for guests of the attached hotel, if you booked before 6pm for a table before 7pm; but we screwed up by 15 minutes and the maître d’ was emphatic: we’d have to pay full whack. Now I’ve been sitting over the remains of my kangaroo and macadamia salad for a full half-hour, waiting to pay the inflated bill, and my temperature has been plummeting the while. There’s nothing more real than this sort of tourist gouging – and Alice Springs is a tourist town, among other things. A tourist town serviced by tourists: mostly backpackers, most of whom in turn are from Britain.

Last night in Casa Nostra, a Calabrian restaurant sited on the parched banks of the Todd River (it flows about once in an average lifetime), we were served by a nice young man from Aberdeen, and the many miles between the Grey City and the Red Centre were eliminated by his opening remark: “I read something you wrote recently about Scots independence. I myself am not in favour.” Then this morning, at a café in the mall, he popped up again – working a second job, this time with his Edinburghian girlfriend, so they can gather a sufficient sum to keep on truckin’.

All down the Stuart Highway (known colloquially as “The Track”) from Darwin, we’ve been waited on by young folk from East Grinstead and Letterkenny, Dewsbury and Great Malvern. They come on working visas, not available to the nationals of countries which aren’t either historic (Britain) or contemporary (United States) overlords of Australia, and work these jobs out in the back of Bourke, where young Australians are loath to go. To the backpackers the Outback is a mythic realm suffused with wonder, presided over by an ancient people steeped in sorcery who are also wizard at graphic arts – but to most young Australians it’s too much of nothing, while their largely deracinated and welfare-dependent Aboriginal fellow citizens are a source of perplexity, shame and ignorance.

All this is running through my mind as I ask the waitress where she’s from. “Israel,” she replies. “Ah,” I say, “I didn’t know you could get a working visa for Australia on an Israeli passport.” “You can’t,” she says, “but my parents are American and I also have a US passport.” Of course it’s not this young woman’s fault in any way, but there is still something slightly nauseating about this: the Americans have a spy base outside Alice, called Pine Gap. So it is that geostrategic “considerations” and neoliberal “economics” vibrate through the rudaceous rocks of the MacDonnell Ranges as our elders sing up a nightmarish dreamtime.

“Ah, well,” I say, “you must be used to desert country, then.” “Ye-es,” the Israeli waitress bridles a little, “but Israel isn’t as desert as here.”

One of the many great things about Australia – where I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years, my first sojourn being on a working visa exactly like the waitress’s – is a genuine, if slightly abrasive egalitarianism: the original Digger mentality of mateship suffuses even the 21st-century globalised food industry, such that tipping is frowned on as shameless evidence of a de haut en bas attitude. These young folk are being paid adequately by the establishment, but that’s the problem: they have no incentive to get the tucker to the table quickly, and they aren’t trained. Thus my long wait for the undiscounted bill has become tangled up in my mind with all the world’s woes, and I snap back: “I’ll thank you not to lecture me on geography, young lady. Your state has been snaffling up deserts throughout my lifetime, beginning with the Sinai. Granted, its most recent acquisitions have been relatively piecemeal ones on the West Bank of the Jordan, and only semi-arid, but still . . .”

Later on, my eldest takes me to task for this solecism, bringing the misfortunes of the Middle East into the heart of the great southern continent, but I am unrepentant. True, the parallels aren’t exact, but both Israel/Palestine and Australia are polities that have pursued the old colonialist agenda under modern dispensations; both are states in which there’s a grotesque disparity between the conditions in which the indigenous people survive and those that the expropriating incomers enjoy. The Red Ochre Grill, with its pseudo-gourmet dishes confected out of “native” ingredients (emu, kangaroo and camel meat mostly), is a perfect instance of this phenomenon, a sort of gustatory colonialism, if you will.

Outback of the restaurant, in the sandy slough of the Todd River’s bed, the “Long Grass people” – Aboriginals bushed by the grog – stand in for benighted Palestinians. The rates of alcoholism among them are eclipsed only by those of diabetes. An old Australian friend in Darwin put it to me thus: “As you drive south to the Alice you’re travelling along a broad highway of renal failure.”

True, from time out of mind all sorts of holidays have been taken in other people’s misery. Yet there is something particularly queasy about whites working away in the well-appointed restaurant while, out in the darkness, welfare-dependent blacks are killing themselves with Coca-Cola.

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism