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.
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.