Obama delivered the “big race speech” today. It was, of course, great. I am happy to hear him take the issue head on and show the leadership so many are asking of the future nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the United States. He’s stepping up. He always knew he would have to. Though supporters of Hillary Clinton may call him white trash in their pews, Barack always knew the real issue would not be his mother, but his father. His blackness.
I always knew it too. I have a special sense of such things based on a history of growing up in the south. It was always there whether anyone liked to talk about it or not. The racial tension. What Barack would call the stain of original sin upon our Constitution. A stain we’ve spent a great deal of time trying to rub out. A stain that has taken the lives of some of our greatest thinkers and leaders. A stain that a young boy from a sleepy little river town in Kentucky had once dreamed would go away in his lifetime.
We don’t like to talk about it much. But talk we must.
These things are generational and I view this race for President in a generational context to a great degree and this is one reason I support Obama. I think he offers a symbolic generational shift into a new era of American political leadership. One I think we desperately need as a country.
I was introduced to the generational aspects of prejudice and fear at a young age. It came in the form of a conversation I had with my Pappy (my mother’s father). Herbert Worland Chism. Pappy was probably one of the hardest working and most interesting people I’ve ever met. He was a store owner in his early years along with a barber. He later would become a tobacco farmer and jailer of that sleepy little river town. He was well respected and, though a man of few words, influenced others around him by his knack for the well placed 5 word phrase and wry smile. He listened and had great timing when to interject into a conversation, sometimes slaying a 20 minute conversation with as few as 4 words. Most of the time after having just delivered a quick spit of chewing tobacco into a spittoon. I always loved that about him. He was also a very compassionate man, taking in 2 former prisoners as handymen and attempting to help them both beat alcoholism. He probably didn’t need their help and might not have been able to afford to pay them much, but I remember them both being a part of the family and thinking what a great person Pappy (and Mammy) were for doing such a kind thing.
Pappy was born in 1899. He died while I was in high school at the age of 88.
He always saw me as a pretty smart kid and would constantly tell my parents as much. I was always proud to hear it. He taught me how to play Checkers the only way a person of his generation would. He lined up the board and we started playing without so much as a word of instruction. I was 6. 3 years later at the age of 9 I beat him. He stood up, laughed, and walked away. We never played again.
It was around that age that he also taught me that fear, prejudice, and racism were things that would take a great deal of time and a great deal of effort to minimize and maybe someday eradicate. I grew up on a military base during most of my formative years, which was a very diverse place in the early 70s. I was lucky enough to be exposed to all types of cultures and races growing up. Pretty much any demographic that was in the military and any country we ever fought in (Germany, Korea, Vietnam) I was exposed to.
I was shocked to hear Pappy often use the term nigger. I asked him about it one day and he commenced to sit me down and explain the difference between a “good nigger” and a “bad nigger”. It just about broke my heart. He was serious. He didn’t delineate in terms of character and he surely was not color blind. He lumped all blacks together as “niggers” and sorted them out through his determination of good/bad. It floored me. I guess I had expected him to look at me and repent and go about changing his ways because some wild eyed kid called him on his racist thinking.
It was not going to happen. Now, I could say that I’m disappointed in this characterization and that I don’t view things through that same lens. That would be pretty obvious to the casual observer of this blog. What I will never say is that Pappy was a bad man, or Un-American even. He was uniquely American. I’m not better than he, just different. Progressing. As has my dad and his generation. We move on and continue to refine what it is to be American. We rub away at the stain of our past until the parchment is cleaner and closer to the ideals that were first set out for us as a nation.
I continue to hope as I did at the age of 9 that this nation will continue down the path of progressive growth and come to the point where we can all look at each other and be proud of who we are. We have a great deal to be proud of, but we have more work to do before we live up to the true meaning of the ideals of our founders.
I got the sense today that Barack Obama was tired. Tired of the hatred and fear-mongering insanity that has gripped not just Republicans, but Democrats as well. I know I get tired when I have to endure the same types of slurs I saw used against blacks in the south now retooled to attack anyone of a Middle Eastern heritage or having a name that is not familiar to the average Anglo-Saxon Caucasoid. I get tired when I see the same type of fear and ignorance used against blacks in the south retooled to attack two men or two women who happen to fall in love and have the audacity to want to live their lives in the same way other Americans do. I get really tired when I see this country become bastardized into something that it was never intended to be.
We’re not going to get over the hump by continuing to let ourselves be divided. What we should all focus on is how to live our lives in ways that we’ll be proud to have our grandchildren write about one day. Were we prejudiced and hateful? Or were we compassionate and kind? Did we have the courage to move our country forward or were we paralyzed by the pervasive fears of the day? Were we even able to see our own prejudices and reactions to fear? Or were we blinded by the lunatic rantings of those who would divide us?
Obama finishes his speech by telling the story of two campaigns supporters. A white girl named Ashley and an elderly black gentleman. Ashley tells a moving story of why she is supporting the campaign involving her mother having cancer when she was 9 and losing her job and not being able to afford healthcare. When Ashley finishes her story of wanting to help other kids in that same position she asks the elderly black man why he is here. He replies to everyone in the room, “I’m here because of Ashley.”
We should all contemplate why we are here and who we are here for and begin the work of moving our country forward in ways that will make our grandchildren proud.
I’ll leave you with what struck me most about he speech today:
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
We do indeed have a choice.