By Rich Wandschneider
Writers on the Range
When “All in the Family” hit the TV screens in 1971, the war in Vietnam was raging, cities from Washington, D.C. to Detroit were charred from riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination and many young people like me were leaving those cities, moving west to rural America.
Archie Bunker stayed in Queens, where a “bar was a man’s castle,” while daughter Gloria and son-in-law “Meathead” tried to help Archie grasp hippies and anti-war protests.
We called ours the “back to the land” movement, and we chuckled with Meathead as Archie Bunker got chuckles from our dads. But we were done watching “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” Our flexible families were radically changing.
Well, the family has changed again and I’d argue that my own occasionally dysfunctional family is closer to what’s happening in America now than either of the television versions of the past.
In 1965, I joined the Peace Corps and went to Turkey, where I spent most of the next five years. I’d grown up in Minnesota and California, child of immigrant families from Germany and Norway. In Turkey, I met a Peace Corps volunteer from Pennsylvania whose own family roots traced to Italy and Poland. We married and moved to rural northeast Oregon in 1971, just as Archie was hitting the airwaves.
As the Vietnam War dragged on, adoption services began bringing mixed-race Vietnamese children to the United States and then poor children from India and Central America. Simple American adoptions had only recently come out of a closet — historically they were hush-hush affairs with unmarried mothers going to visit faraway aunts and doctors quietly arranging adoptions.
In 1976, we adopted a 1-year-old white boy born in New Jersey and brought to Oregon by a mom too young and poor to raise him. In 1983, we adopted a boy from Calcutta, estimated to be 6.
We thought all we needed was love to bring these kids into the American mainstream. We didn’t realize that kids bring past trauma with them. We also didn’t imagine that being brown in eastern Oregon would be so hard.
The white son had his next bout with trauma when a classmate committed suicide in his presence. He transferred schools, became a star athlete, went to college — and struggled. He joined the Navy and married a woman whose father served in Vietnam and whose mother is from the Philippines. Their road seems smooth right now.
Color wasn’t an issue when the kids were young, but as our brown boy hit junior high, conscious and unconscious racial slurs got louder. He got the “N word” more than once, transferred schools twice, and at 18 moved to Portland; he didn’t graduate from high school. He had babies and couldn’t manage them, so I raised a mixed-race grandson and granddaughter in eastern Oregon.
Again, early years were easy, but racial slurs murmured in school hallways and on athletic fields made their high school years hard. “How’s being black?” wrote a classmate in my grandson’s yearbook. His friendships withered and he took out anger on the football field. His sister graduated online and moved away.
I did not realize how isolated they both felt until my grandson went to nearby Eastern Oregon University. There, the student body is 25 percent non-white. He loves college.
Their father, born in Calcutta, has found a life and a wife in Phoenix, Ariz. She is an immigrant, too, from Uganda, and they and their 2-year-old son came to visit us one Christmas. There was apprehension on all sides: If brown gets noticed in small-town Northeast Oregon, what will the locals do with this new Indian-African family?
The 2-year-old stole everyone’s hearts, at home and in town, and the grandkids I raised are beginning to understand their father’s hard journey as they begin their own adult journeys in a rapidly changing America. Even Eastern Oregon is growing multicolored with Mexican and Thai restaurants, students from across the world, and the resurgence of American Indians.
It won’t be easy, but my grandkids, brown and black, representing the heritage of four continents and one island nation, are gaining confidence. They will grow my family tree in directions my German-Norwegian-American grandparents, parents — and Archie Bunker — would never have imagined.
This is what America is becoming, and it’s a good thing.
Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to lively conversation about the West. He writes in Oregon.