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In the 1960’s, whenever I went to friends and relatives homes in West Philadelphia it seemed as if they all had the same two pictures on their mantel John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and this was before they were assassinated. These were all predominately black homes and I understood MLK, but it didn’t dawn on me till much later the significance of why so many people would display a picture of the President of the United States. I’ve never seen a picture of George W. Bush on anyone’s mantel!

I know everyone doesn’t have a mantel over a fireplace (ours was over a wall heater), but most people I know have a place where they display important, photos, religious icons and memorabilia. Some people have photos on the walls, stuff on book shelves and today’s most popular shrine – refrigerator magnets holding down pictures of their current loved ones. But there’s a big difference between being on the mantel instead of the fridge!

When I go to peoples homes I’m always drawn to check out their mantels and memorabilia. I think they display their stuff for themselves, but also for others to get a snapshot of who they are and what’s meaningful to them. I don’t think that people show pictures of their friends and families to show the world that they only know people that look like them, but mostly it’s true. Asians have Asian pictures; Black people have their pictures, Hispanics, White folks and so on.

Last week I watched Tiger Woods an Michelle Wie in a golf tournament. I was impressed at how throngs of mostly white people clapped and cheered their every move. I thought to myself we’ve finally turned the corner, – a colorblind society – but actually we’re probably just coming to the intersection! I wondered how many of them have Tiger or Michelle Wie on their mantel!
As much as we strive for an inclusive society most of our mantels are segregated.

Times have changed, and instead of picture of presidents on people’s mantel I’ve seen concert tickets, empty beer cans from important events, and lots of sea shells. In Berkeley I do see pictures of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan prayer cloths, and Pace Bene flags, but rarely an American flag. I must admit that the only thing on my mantel, that’s not family, is a Jimi Hendrix action figure. Our mantels kind of represent our individual voting booth, in the privacy of our homes, and what we are most willing to share with others that is important to us. I’m still struggling with what or who I can put on my mantel to show others that I’m with it! Hillary Clinton? Barack Obama?

I realize now the significance of those two pictures on everyone’s mantel – MLK and JKF.
MLK represented the future: our buy-in and belief in the dream of America that he so eloquently described. JFK represented the present at that time: our trust that that the American system of laws and justice finally was ours too, and he would make sure we got a fair break. Isn’t it ironic that they both got shot in this America!

I’ve never seen a picture of George W. Bush or Al Sharpton on anyone’s mantel. What’s that got to say about our present and our future!

I must admit that in the recent election I had Tom Bates, Kriss Worthington, and Linda Maio signs on my lawn. But could any of them make my mantel? Linda send me a picture!

What’s on your mantel?

Winston Burton
Berkeley resident