Friday, November 14, 2008

What it means: Part 1

I thought I would die before I saw all of this.

I was born on the year of the MLK and RFK assassinations. I don’t consider myself old, but I think I finally may well be old after all, -however I may choose to regard myself. My mentality, consciousness, ethics and sense of history seem rooted in the last century. The “death” of the civil rights movement was all I heard about as a young child in the New York City public schools from first grade onward. As children we were brought up to believe that giants strode the earth before our birth and would never return.

The legacy of Lyndon Johnson was always in question, always the subject of argument between our teachers and sometimes our parents. The Vietnam War trumped his achievements as the driving force behind the enactment of civil rights legislation. Nobody’s grandmother has a picture of Martin, Malcolm, Abraham, Johnny, Bobby… and Lyndon.

No one remembers LBJ’s birthday.

I grew up in an America that maintained beautiful convictions such as “out of many, one,” “United we stand, divided we fall,” “All men are created equal,” “Liberty and justice for all.” Our government stamped these ideals on our money; Broadcast networks celebrated these ideals in the animated musical cartoons they televised on Saturday mornings… but the truth, unlike an ideal, is often ugly.

The truth didn’t get stamped on money; the truth didn’t get celebrated in song on “Schoolhouse Rock”.

That truth of my childhood America was that, the distance you went in life largely depended on who or what you were born as. The circumstances of your birth and the identity you were assigned closed doors to you. As a child, you knew this intimately. You knew that some people just could not go some places, and could not do certain things that it was said everyone could do. Failure or insurmountable limits were inevitable for some people but not others. No one had more doors closed to them in the 20th Century than the American Black.

The peculiar thing about American oppression in the 20th Century is that it was largely publicly ordained on a local level, across the nation. The 13th Amendment had been passed in 1865, back in the 19th Century… but somehow we still have the long chapter of Jim Crow and segregation to explain to one another. How does the country that opposed Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich explain that the National League in Baseball abolished apartheid before its government decided to enforce the Civil War’s outcome? How does it explain the Japanese American internment camps for that matter? That so many strange state and county laws were concocted decade after decade, prolonging the conflicts central to the Civil War is an embarrassment to our Republic. Racism, thanks to the legacy of Spanish “conquest” in the Americas, seemed to be in this nation’s blood. I thought these truths, were not held to be self evident, but they were truths nonetheless and were unchangeable facts of American life. I doubted my country’s maturity. I thought it would be centuries before an African American, no matter how effectively deemphasized his Blackness might be, no matter how many times they called him interracial, biracial, mixed race, half white, half black, would be elected by this nation.

I said over and over that Barack Obama could never win. I said it could not happen in my lifetime.

I have never been so happy to be so absolutely wrong about anything in my life. One impossibility, one specific relic of exclusions born of our internecine past now seems quaint and irrelevant at mid November. I just didn’t know my country as well as I thought I did.

As another silly impossibility slinks and slithers into the pages of history to become a curiosity for our children and future generations, like photographs of “Colored” signs above a fountain, like poster bills indicating “3/5s of a person,” I’m saddened that Jesse Helms didn’t live to see his own state’s electoral votes go to a “Negro.”


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