First Person: What’s On Your Mantel?

By Winston Burton
Tuesday December 18, 2007

As we get closer to election time, and I’m beginning to get more literature, photos, and slogans, I’m pondering what should I keep, display or throw in the garbage (recycle). Nowadays people express their beliefs, passions and identity on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and even tattoos! But I still like to look at what’s on people’s mantels.  

In the 1960s, whenever I went to the homes of friends and relatives, 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; I understood MLK, but it didn’t dawn on me until much later the significance of why so many people would display a picture of JFK.  

I know everyone doesn’t have a mantel over a fireplace (ours was a shelf 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 and being on the fridge! 

When I go to someone’s home, 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. And so Asians have Asian pictures; black people have their pictures, Hispanics, white folks and so on have theirs. 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 mantels 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 never 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, outside of our underwear drawer! 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? Barbara Lee? I’m not sure, so I created a checklist. 


Mantel checklist: 

• Local politicians? I must admit that in a past election I had Kriss Worthington, Linda Maio and both Tom Bates and Shirley Dean signs on my lawn at the same time (OK, so I like to win!). But could any of them make my mantel? Linda send me a picture! 

• Is your mantel diverse? Do you have at least one person from the following sub-groups—Asian, African American, Caucasian, Hispanic. 

• Are your candles unlit? Having unlit candles on your mantel, still unwrapped, is the same as having a cream- colored velvet living room couch with clear plastic covering. 

• Is your mantel green? You figure it out! 

• Is anyone on it alive? If not it’s a shrine. 

I realize now the significance of those two pictures on everyone’s mantel in the past—MLK and JFK. 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 the American system of laws and justice finally was ours too, and he would make sure we got a fair break. It’s sad and ironic that they both got shot in this America, by Americans! 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!  


Winston Burton is a Berkeley resident.