I'd been nibbling at the edges of a couple of blog posts about language and names, but last night I read an essay by one of TheAtlantic.com's bloggers, and it stopped me in my tracks. So I'm going to send you over there to read what Ta-Nehisi Coates has to say about Barack Obama's Kansas grandparents. Take a minute to study the photo of them, taken (I'm guessing) in the late 1940s, just an average young white couple in the middle of the century, in the middle of the country.
Think about that country's history. About families. About race. About what doing the right thing means.
Think about the fact that it wasn't until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Loving v. Virginia decision (yes, Loving was the plaintiffs' surname), struck down the "anti-miscegenation" laws that prohibited interracial marriage. (California was slightly more advanced. Our state's Supreme Court made such unions legal in 1948.)
What should be remembered is that, though our racial history is mired in utter disgrace, though the deep cowardice of post-reconstruction haunts us into the 21st century, at any point on the timeline, you can find ordinary white people doing the right thing.
Ordinary people of all colors, I would add.
Be sure to read all the comments, too.
Since he posted it yesterday, Coates's short essay has been flying around the Internet. Read what Orange Tangerine and Too Sense have had to say.
Here's my own take. Unlike most of the adults I associate with today, I went to a high school (large, public, big-city) in which white kids were the minority group. Most of my classmates were African-American; many were Asian-American. Some classmates spoke heavily accented English. I knew guys who looked a lot like Barack Obama and who, like him, went on to law school and public-service careers. One of my closest friends was a light-skinned black girl whose darker-skinned father, a doctor, sometimes accepted chickens as payment from his patients. In homeroom I sat behind a mocha-skinned boy who shared my surname; at a class reunion years later I asked him about it, and he told me the name came from a German-Jewish ancestor named Friedman who had immigrated to Louisiana, where he bought a plantation and took a slave "concubine," as my classmate put it.
I would never presume to know what it's like to live in the United States as a dark-skinned person. But I do know what it's like to live around people of all skin colors and all kinds of family stories. And I know a bit about racism. I had white friends whose parents lied about their street addresses so the kids could attend the mostly white high school in the next district. (Those oh-so-genteel parents referred to the black kids at my high school as "the element," as if they were argon or calcium rather than actual people.) I also had black friends whose parents warned them not to accept invitations to parties at white kids' houses. (My black friends ignored the warnings. We had some excellent parties.)
So when I think about Barack Obama and his ordinary extraordinary life, I don't think in abstractions. I think about people I've known and cared about. And I am pretty damn excited about what this country just might be on the verge of. Or, in fact, has already achieved.
As a black woman, now 59 years old, who attended the same high school as Nancy...(actually her locker was right next to mine), I was fortunate to have the same exposure to diverse cultures during my formative years. My junior high years were spent in an environment that was almost exclusively Jewish. During those young years, for the first time in my life, I had teachers who recognized my innate talents and were not deterred by the color of my skin. Because I speak very proper English, I had had rather frequent negative interactions with gangs of black kids who would chase me home from school, prior to my moving into a predominately Jewish neighborhood. All African Americans are racially mixed. My own maiden name is German. My grandfather was half-white.
The most significant thing I learned from this diverse high school experience is that color/ethnic background is not the criteria to judge the quality of the human being you are interacting with. I've known pretty people who were ugly inside. It saddens me that is 2008 this narrow criteria still defines so many. Much of the beauty of the world and its people is lost with such myopic vision.
Posted by: Veronica | October 22, 2008 at 11:09 AM
Great post, Nancy. Thanks for sharing your story -- and yours too, Veronica!
Posted by: Karen | October 22, 2008 at 01:47 PM
Nancy, thanks for linking to the Coates piece in your Twitter feed—that's how I learned of it.
I grew up in an integrated (but still mostly white) town and school district. Wow, college was weird. Considerably more Asian-Americans than I was accustomed to, but so few African-Americans.
Now my Asian-American husband and I are raising our mixed-race kid in a diverse city neighborhood, and his school is crazy-diverse: African-American, African, Asian-American, Asian, South Asian, Hispanic, white American, European, multiracial, Muslim headcoverings, low-income and relatively affluent kids all learn and play together. I wish all of this country's schoolchildren could have the same experience my son is having.
Posted by: Orange | October 22, 2008 at 02:01 PM
I have no problem with skin color that Obama brings to the table.
I _do_ have big problems with some of the ideas that he brings though. Not that the other choices are much better.
Of course, with the rock-star fervor and adulation proffered Obama, many see any questioning of policy, motivation, principles and/or execution of ideas as simply being race-based.
That is the sad part of this whole campaign.
Posted by: ...tom... | October 24, 2008 at 11:10 AM