“Everybody’s got a little light under the sun.”

—  Parliament

To everything there is a season, and a time for every funky purpose under heaven.

Summer here on the Oregon coast is the time to absorb vitamin D, put money in the bank, and exchange social spices with visitors. Stocking up on these necessities helps locals celebrate the rest of the year.

I don’t want to live anywhere else. But I’ve missed something since moving here from Tennessee 10 years ago. Oregon is low on melanin. The reality hits home when I connect with African-American visitors at my Cannon Beach bookshop. I’m revived by those conversations, and reminded of how much I owe to the cultural mix of my upbringing.

In a way, life here reminds me of growing up in Dixie. I rarely saw people of color when we visited Carolina’s coast during the summer, mostly because African-American families vacationed at separate locations. In terms of melanin, the crowds I saw there looked like the ones I see on the shores of Oregon.

Yet the demographics changed when I returned to school in the fall, where my classes were integrated. That reunion wasn’t always accompanied by good manners, and there was plenty of black-and-white typecasting. At best, this provoked us to laugh with each other. Friendships were forged, nevertheless, and for the most part we all got along.

By the time I graduated from high school, in 1981, a natural sense of cool had been created across that artificial color line. Most of us didn’t realize it then, and I suspect many still don’t. Yet we started stepping to similar rhythms, even if we didn’t always share the dance floor.

By contrast, when my wife Jennifer attended Seaside High School during the same four years, there were no African-American students. She had little contact with people of color, and few chances to cultivate cross-cultural relationships. That didn’t make Jennifer and her classmates any less conscious of core human values (or any less fond of Earth Wind and Fire). The difference, for me, is that I was immersed in a diverse testing ground for those elemental values.

More opportunities

Today’s students here on the coast have more cultural opportunities. For example, our children are making lots of friends within the Hispanic-American community. This year we were blessed to attend a neighbor’s Quinceanera – a coming-of-age gala that is a beautiful tradition.

Like many people our age, Jennifer and I were taught textbook theories on race and human history that are as embarrassing now as the hairstyles in our old annual photos. We have a lot to learn from today’s youths who haven’t been dosed with that dated conditioning. America is rooted in a cultural matrix that owes far more to the southern latitudes than is recognized.

Much has happened since 1981. That was the year Ralph Ellison penned a new introduction to Invisible Man (his masterwork on African-American experience). Rereading his words written 30 years ago, I’m struck by the fact that Ellison could barely envision a future in which a person of color would become president. Now that future is our recent past, thanks to President Barack Obama.

What next? Advancements in human fraternity aren’t defined by the election of another career politician. Progress is about culture, in the deepest sense. It’s about art and spirit and science and philosophy and economics. And it’s worth noting, as we move forward, that books about African-American heritage get very little attention in Northwest bookstores.

Oregonians may think we are color-blind, but like many people we are still tone deaf to the deeper aspects of culture. I’ve discussed the need for greater cross-cultural exchange with African-American folks who visit my shop. As we talk I begin to feel a familiar rhythm, and a beloved light flashes in my soul.

“You’ve got to feel it!” sang The 5th Dimension. I remember. Mmm mmm.

Watt Childress owns Jupiter’s Books in downtown Cannon Beach and he publishes upperleftedge.com. Email him at wattchildress@yahoo. com.