Thursday, November 06, 2008


Damn, am I so happy about this. In 1975 I was one of the among the first students to participate in court ordered desegregation in Louisville, KY. I recall the morning that my bus left my middle school for the school in downtown Louisville. Our bus driver was a black woman named Rosie and she was one of the bravest people I had met to that moment in my life. As we pulled away, parents - all white - lined the side of the road. Police pushed people from being in front of the bus. The parents and protesters screamed, shouted things like "Save our children", "Don't do this to our future!", and "Keep the niggers away!". They pounded the side of the bus with signs, hands, fists. They were angry and there wasn't a person on the bus who wasn't scared - of the anger, let alone what images their parents put in their minds about what was happening.

My parents weren't happy about the busing, but not for stated reasons of racism. It would be a few years before my mother's racism would yield it's ugly head and almost 20 years before I heard my father tell me, quite casually, "Martin Luther King was nothing but an uppity nigger until he got shot and they martyred him." But at this point in my life they chose not to indulge those thoughts. Their argument was that they moved to an area with good schools and that the inner city schools were inferior. Of course, that was part of the point of desegregation.

The inner city school was inferior in many ways. It was downwind from the slaughter house across the street. The stench would reach such portions on hot, sticky days, that the officials would not allow the kids to play outside and would order the windows closed, which only mitigated matters slightly. The text books were not in proper supply - we often shared - and were out of date. The band program and teacher was 3 years behind my suburban middle school. The food was marginal and most of the white kids brought their lunch. In every academic way the school was playing catch up.

Yet, there was one important lesson that relied on none of that, for me. It was the interaction in that environment. I became comfortable around black folks. Until that time, I hadn't met any...only seen them on television. I learned to empathize with poverty and to loathe it. I learned about the disparities of our society and how far from fair we really were. I also learned that a powerful bus driver like Rosie was someone to not only respect, but hold in high esteem. These lessons would later inspire my mother to say, "You always take the side of the underdog."

I cried yesterday when the results were final. My friend hugged me and asked why. Never in my life could I have imagined seeing a black American elected to President. Oh, sure, my liberal roots would always talk about the possibility, but it was always theoretical. My past experiences just wouldn't let me believe that it would happen. I'd seen too much racism. From those early days of school busing programs to my parent's revelations to other revelations from family and associates to the suffering felt in almost every inch of the Detroit area - suffering caused by heightened racial tensions - it was just too big a dream. Now that dream has come to pass.

I've seen history in my life. I can recall the news of King's assassination. I recall the news of Bobby Kennedy's assassination. Man on the moon, the Nixon impeachment, the Berlin Wall falling, Russians standing peacefully for their freedom. Yesterday, I saw the most moving and perhaps greatest event so far. The fact that it also comes as an end to the worst 8 years of politics that I have seen in this country - the devolution of human rights, the attempts to shred the Constitution, the hatred and fear and anti-spiritual meanness makes it all the more poignant. But even without the worst period in America that I have seen, this is still one great fucking moment. I am happy that I was around to participate and see something so immensely beautiful.

1 comment:

Albatross said...

Great post.

I went to a Catholic high school in Queens through third grade, so I was raised with black and white friends all around. Two of my third grade friends were Steven Black and Kenneth Brown.

Then we moved to a white suburb in New Jersey, mostly because my brother was special needs and Queens had no resources for him. The nuns told my parents to move to a wealthy suburb where he could get the attention he needed.

After four years in New Jersey my paternal grandmother died, and my mother wanted to return home to her native Minnesota. So we packed up for the trip, and for old times sake we went on one last visit to Queens.

Four years in white suburbia had taken their toll. Everyone that I had told of my origins had loked at me aghast: you lived in Queens? Were you ever mugged?

We pulled up in front of our old church, and there were CROWDS of black people going in to it. In fact we were about the only whites visible.

I climbed out of the car in terror. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Crowds of strange black people surrounded us. And one of them... one of them was approaching me!

"Bobby? Bobby, is that you?"

It was like the shattering of a blurry glass wall. In an instant the terrifying black person had revealed himself to be Steven Black, my old friend from third grade. The phrase "the scales fell from my eyes" fits perfectly.

I spent the rest of the Mass exchanging goofy faces with Steven across the pews of the church.

I have never seen him again since that day, but I have always remembered the lesson I learned about the power of prejudicial fear.

The election of Barack Obama culminates what I have observed for years as the diminishing value of race in our social relationships. In the 1990's the inroads of race had already reached the most trivial tributaries with the first black Vulcan on Star Trek Voyager. And in the 2000's I saw race emerging as a source of honest humor - not racial slurs, but racial camaraderie, people feeling comfortable making jokes based on race that were not put downs. On "Scrubs" the white protagonist hugged his black friend, who insisted "Call me your brown bear." During the Seventies and Eighties the word "brown" would have been carefully omitted.

So I was gratified but not surprised when race in this campaign seemed, honestly, ridiculous, and those who employed racist codes like "uppity" were viewed by all sides as out of touch and unhelpful. Religious bigotry was a bigger issue than racial bigotry in this campaign.

And of course there is the candidate to consider. Obama is so obviously smarter, more thoughtful, and more eloquent than most of us that the content of his character easily persuaded most Americans of his suitability for office.

But there's still work to do. The racists and the simply stupid among us are already stating that no black person anywhere can ever claim to have been impacted by racism again. As if one man's exceptional achievement overturns centuries of cultural bigotry. One might as well claim that when Sir Edmund Hilary conquered Everest, everyone could begin using the summit fpr picnics.

It's a relief to have Obama as our president elect. After eight long years, I finally have some hope that the person running this nation might actually have its best interests at heart. Having an drunken, narcissistic boob for a president was never fun, and got old really fast. A constitutional scholar in the White House? That's change I can believe in.