Friday, January 23, 2009

A post-Inauguration remembrance of something pre-Inauguration

By Richard Crowson, just-departed editorial cartoonist of the Wichita Eagle. Image found here (via Douglas and Main).

This image makes me smile, and I would like to believe that Lincoln, who personally was not as enlightened on matters of race as his public image would suggest, would have been amenable to sharing a fist-bump with our new President. If Obama's approval ratings are any indication, many many people who didn't vote for him back in November are fist-bumping him in their own ways, too--if only because he's the President and, given what lies ahead for us as a nation, those of us who love our country should wish any President well. Heck: Despite my personal feelings about the previous administration, occasionally aired here, I certainly didn't want Bush or his administration to fail and take no personal pleasure in thinking that he did. That would be as perverse a way to think as it is for Rush Limbaugh to publicly state he wants Obama's presidency to fail (I won't link; it's easy enough to find on the 'Nets). As I understand Limbaugh's remarks, he's speaking out of the context of his being a member of the Disloyal Opposition, rather than a racist one. But still. And, to be sure, there are some (few, but still too many) who cannot abide by the White House's being occupied by this or any African-American.

The above is a sad affirmation of something I kind of sort of alluded to here: that seeing Obama become a President is, without a doubt, a tremendous moment in our long and painful history that has been so utterly shaped, at every level, by the question of race. But rather than think that our work is done as a nation, it's more accurate to think of this as a gesture in the right direction toward finishing that work . . . all the while remembering that that work, given our ideals, will never be completely done.

Over the past two days, I have been having a running conversation about all this with a friend of mine out at the Air Force base where I teach. She was a fervent Hillary supporter during the primaries who, though thrilled at Obama's victory, still would love to see a woman President (full disclosure: as would I). In the course of our talking about how, still, our nation's collective attitudes about race are, pardon the pun, not so black-and-white as some would have us believe, I was reminded of something that happened to me while I was still living in Mobile back in the '90s.

Lots of details have faded: when it was, why I happened to be looking out the front window of the house to begin with, how many people there were, etc. What matters more is what I do remember. First of all, the setting: It was early evening and cold by Mobile standards. For whatever reason, I looked out the front window, and there was an old station wagon parked in front of the house, its hood up. I could see a man standing in front of the car, and there was enough light from our porch to reveal that he was black.

I went out to offer tools, to give him a jump, to offer him the phone to call someone if things reached that point. There were at least five other people in the car--I remember two women and two small children. I greeted them as well; they smiled, cautiously, at me. I don't remember now what exactly this man, perhaps in his 50s or 60s, said he thought was the matter with his car; what I do remember is what he kept telling me as I talked with him: something to the effect that he'd be leaving soon and, even more striking, kept apologizing for his car's breaking down right there in front of my house. He was polite in his responses to me but resistant to my offers of help. That was okay of course; we Men don't want to accept help too early in the game, no matter how much it might be in our better interest to accept--I'm a skilled player of that game, too, even in the face of ample past instances of bone-headed results arising from playing the game too far past the point of no return. But what I couldn't make sense of was his apparent need to apologize for what was happening. Why apologize to a total stranger for one's car's breaking down in front of that stranger's house? It's not his fault, after all.

It wasn't until the man had made it politely clear to me that he didn't want to accept my help and I turned to go back inside to report to P., my then-wife, that it struck me: What this man was saying to me had nothing to do with the particulars of what was being said that night but with a long, long cultural memory of innumerable events much like this one that he assumed I was also remembering--black folks shouldn't be in mostly-white parts of town after dark. They run the risk of verbal and even physical hostility from the residents, spending a night in jail or, in Mobile, worse: only about 10 years before, a black man was hanged downtown by some white men as part of a Klan ritual. Never mind what I was saying; in a real sense, that man wasn't listening to me at all but to that cultural memory. The script for the evening was written before I was even aware this family's car was out there. It's a frustrating thing: on the one hand, that memory interfered with his hearing, really hearing, my offers of help; but on the other hand, who could blame him for not hearing? He was mistaken, and yet he was not.

Some time passed--I don't remember how much. I'd look out the window every once in a while to see what was happening. There the car sat, and there the man kept trying to get it to run. Finally, P. said that at the very least we could offer the use of the phone again and invite the other folks inside for coffee and hot chocolate. So she and I went out to talk with them. This time the man accepted the offer of the phone and the kids, though not the women, came inside to get warmed up. The kids had hot chocolate. The man reached a relation of his; he arrived; and they all rode home with him, leaving the station wagon there. I stopped looking out the window then. The next morning, the car was gone.

What to say about all this, really? The existence of that cultural memory and the fact that, despite our post-Emancipation, post Brown v. Board of Education, post-Civil Rights Acts and, later, a post-Obama Administration-future world that we live in, that memory will be with us for a while yet--that's an inarguable Fact. I'd like to think that our gestures toward that family that night participated in a tiny way toward helping ease that memory on its way out the door, as do I hope that my two daughters' strong friendships with African-American kids will do the same. But it's going to take a while: this year marks the 390th anniversary of the arrival of 20 Africans to the English colony at Jamestown; if you grant that "America" includes the Spanish and Portuguese colonies as well, tack on about 100 more years: Bartolomé de las Casas is rightly lauded throughout Latin America for winning for indigenous populations legal protection from enslavement; however, it was also he who proposed the importation of Africans as a solution for the colonies' labor needs. And does it need to be said? Perhaps so: Some whites feel the need to cling to this very same memory.

That's a lot of memory to overcome, on both sides. But in the long list of Good Fights, this one is up near the top. Obama's victory is an important part of that Good Fight but not by any means the final one.

1 comment:

BruceA said...

This is all too true. I once worked at night in a factory, and one of my co-workers was an African-American man perhaps my father's age. He often apologized to white people, even simply for meeting them in the somewhat narrow hallway.

But things are changing quickly. My five-year-old thinks a person's "color" means the color of the shirt they are wearing. "I see a blue person!" Slowly but surely the memory is fading.