Today was an important day for Americans. Not only did a new President take the oath of office, but the first ever African-American President took that oath. One hundred fifty years ago, African-Americans were objects to be owned, not human beings to be respected. Now they are doctors, teachers, presidents, and Presidents. This is all very inspirational, but a little too generic. Let me tell you about my own history with race, not because it's all about me, but because maybe you can recognize yourself in my words.
I was born into racism. My dad has always been blatant about it; he never shied from his feelings about blacks and could let the N-word roll from his tongue without a thought. My mom was the insidious racist. She never used that word and shushed my dad when he started on about color, but - this is important - she thought she wasn't a racist because "it's not their fault they're colored." As in, it's not their fault that they are inferior, that they are not as smart or as energetic or as motivated or as GOOD as white folks.
My external environment was no better. I lived in Decatur, Illinois, which is in the middle of the Midwest, and went to school where there was only one diverse child in all of Eldorado Elementary. He was Catholic. So I lived in a sea of Caucasians, and should have married a survival nut and become a card-carrying white supremacist.
Except that I didn't. One of my vivid memories is when I was 3 years old. We had a teeny little black-and-white TV in the corner and Harry Belafonte was performing on some variety show. He had an open, puffy-sleeved shirt, and was singing "The Banana Boat Song" (you know, DAY-O, DAY-AY-O), and I was glued to the image on the tube. He was the most beautiful being I'd ever seen, and I said so, in whatever language a 3-year old uses. My mother informed me, in the language that moms use, "Not only no, but hell, no." But she was too late; TV had opened the door to Oz for me - a wonderful world of color.
In the meantime, a young black child was growing up in the Crenshaw district of south central Los Angeles. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his parents and three brothers. His world was dark-skinned, with black neighbors and black teachers and black playmates. His parents were not racists, though. They were people who, although proud of their heritage, did not expect the world to either help or hinder them due to their race. As the young man, Dale, grew up, somehow just knew he'd marry outside his race. You see, he'd been watching TV, too.
Fast forward a few hundred years, to my thirties. Dale and I meet at work, fall in love, marry and have a son. Dale's family has been wonderful. My family has been... two thousand miles away, which is just as well.
Now that our son, Marcus, is a teenager and Obama is president, I'm looking at my colorful family and wondering if it means anything to him. After all, Dale and I don't bring race into our conversations. We don't act like being black and white is a big deal. Neither do our friends. Nor does Marcus' school or classmates or friends. Our musical tastes, our meals, our lives are eclectic. We're not ethnic-free, we're ethnic-inclusive.
Last night, I asked Marcus about the election, and about himself. He told me he was excited to see a black man elected president, but it wasn't as pivotal for him as it was for Dale. I asked him what I'd never dared ask before - had he ever been the subject of racial taunts or discrimination? (Before you go all open-mouthed on me, if Marcus had ever come home from school acting weird, it would be the first question on my list.)
"No," he said. "Nobody talks about being black or white or whatever. It's not important."
So the good news is that there may be a generation out there who doesn't care what's in your DNA. They're happy about Obama, but they knew it was possible, this event my generation listed as a dream. But what does that mean about taking pride in your ethnicity? If no one cares if you're black, do you still celebrate your African-American heritage? If no one treats you differently because you're Jewish, do you still warn of the dangers of the Holocaust? Once the world is truly a better place, where everyone respects one another's race, religion and politics, do we dare forget what might happen if we don't? How do we fit bad history into a better day?
"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times