Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Pre-Election Reflections . . .

Election 2008

I had lunch recently with a young man who interned in my office a couple of summers ago. Our lunch dates are always intellectually interesting, especially as we discussed the upcoming election. I told Joseph that I would be voting for Obama mostly because he’s black. Our poor political system is a limping, broken thing and I have no real faith that either candidate can give us the fixes we need, much less keep the promises made to get them through the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I am left to follow the candidate who most closely reflects my own view of things and, for me, that is Obama.

Joseph’s next question was pointed. While he could understand my voting for Obama because he’s black, he was confused as to why mine was not a racist statement but were he to express the same rationale for a McCain vote, it would raise cries of racism. I didn’t have an answer for him. All I could do was attempt to describe the extraordinarily strong set of emotions I’ve carried around inside since I heard Senator Obama accept the nomination on that stage in Denver. Well before my lunch with Joseph, each time I contemplated casting my vote for the likely first African-American president of these United States, I have been overtaken with emotion.

I have a picture in my apartment – a family heirloom – of an elegant couple on their wedding day circa 1901. Both stare straight into the camera in that oddly direct way of old photos. He is seated and she stands next to him with her hand on his shoulder. She wears a magnificently wide brimmed, beflowered hat and empire waist gown with a large pink bow. At first glance, they are a white couple. In fact, they are my Mom’s grandparents - my great-grandparents. Grandma died the year my sister was born, but I have clear memories of Granddaddy who did not pass away until the late 1960s. Granddaddy presided over a family of 13 children, most like my grandmother with white skin, straight hair, and blue grey eyes, and all raised within the African-American community of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Despite the complexion of his skin and the ability to “pass,” my great-grandfather rejected the wealthy white land owner who fathered him and chose to rear his family under the law of the day – a single drop of black blood made you a Negro.

My parents tell stories of childhood in the Jim Crow south – my Mom of spitting in the “Whites’ Only” water fountain as a child, and of a particularly harrowing encounter with a department store salesclerk who didn’t realize my mom, a dark child, and grandma, an apparently white woman, were together. My Dad spoke of working as a teenager at the city’s largest, most exclusive hotel which remained segregated until the year I was born. Not so many years later, the same hotel would host our family reunions.

My most vivid racial memories center around 1968. The country was staggering under the weight of the King and Kennedy assassinations and the race riots in April of that year. There was turmoil in my own family that often had to do with how “white” some members were in the face of how black it was becoming necessary to be. The conflict seemed to be epitomized by the horrified reaction of my grandmother to her son’s shaving off the long, beautiful hair of his two young daughters to short, funky Afros. My grandma’s sister, an activist and advocate for the disadvantaged and the original political junkie, made sure that we kids were at the railroad crossing in Wilmington, Delaware, when the funeral train bearing Bobby Kennedy’s body made its way from New York to Washington. She felt it was important we see firsthand the consequences of what was happening in our world. I remember seeing Mrs. King gazing out a window from that very slow moving train only two months after her husband’s murder.

From the safety of a close-in suburb, I remember seeing the smoke hanging over Washington as the riots raged along the 14th Street corridor.

It appears the smoke has cleared.

After my parents married and moved to Washington, DC., my sister and I were often among the first black kids in some schools and neighborhoods. For me, this was the beginning of learning to be comfortable as the only black in a roomful of white people – still not an uncommon occurrence. Throughout my junior high and high school years, more white kids called my mother “Mama” than her own two children. By the time I left home at 18, my brother and sister, one white and the other Puerto Rican, were still there with Mom. To this day, family is family and color has nothing to do with it.

Thanks to my Mom and Dad and the efforts of those before them, I grew up in a world where hyper-vigilance regarding my race and others’ reaction to it wasn’t quite so urgent though still necessary at times. With such an integrated, almost color blind, upbringing, I am shaken and surprised by just how moved I have been during this campaign; a campaign in which I am politically disappointed but, as a man of color, I am invigorated and stirred on a deeply visceral level.

I look at my life, the opportunities I enjoy, and the ever more limitless future available to my nephews and nieces and to their children, and the tears and emotion of the last couple of months make perfect sense. Those rich and enveloping feelings remind me – color blind though I might be - that I represent the latest of less than five generations in which the impossible now appears possible. I am the product of a white-appearing family who refused to “pass,” and the son and grandson of people who imagined and then created a future for me that ensured my oyster and its pearl would be the same as that of any other American child.

I think that for many African Americans, in the last few weeks we have moved away from a political race and into the realm of dreams. The black experience in this country has often been compared to that of a dream – prophets proclaiming visions of what can be in the face of what is not.

Joseph’s question deserves an answer, but how can I explain to him what I really see? The Dreamers are awakening. What proof - other than my own inner knowing - can I give him that my ancestors, all the enslaved, the Martyrs – Till, Evers, X and King – all those of darker hue who have suffered in this country, stand near? They are Awakened. All waiting to see what we – what I – will do with this new reality.

I would not blame the person who sees nothing more here than romantic notions in the face of the difficult times confronting our country. Perhaps I should have more concrete, sophisticated reasons for casting this vote, but I don’t. What I do have is the overwhelming sense of the millions standing quietly – my aunt’s hand again on my shoulder – urging me to pay attention. To notice. To awake into the Dream.

No – it is not sophisticated, nor is it the neat intellectual package I’d like to present to my friend, Joseph. But for now it is the only reason I can give. I’ll go back to what Jeff considers my obsessive and cynical political analysis after the election. Even in this incredible moment, it is not lost on me that to win an election is not to successfully govern a country.

The lines are going to be long tomorrow morning – hours, even. But what, really, are those few hours compared to the waiting of a people who have wandered an endless dreamscape of far away continents trying to reach “that shining city on a hill,” who have been told that the future is just beyond the Mountaintop?

Walt Whitman said: I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers, And I become the other dreamers.