Tuesday, January 20, 2009
My daughter asked this question today, when she got home from school. She watched some of the Obama inauguration at school, and then some of the parade at home.
She knows it's a big deal, the presidency. She knows that it's a global thing, and the world is involved. She knows there's a war. She knows the phrases "Economic Crisis" and "Meltdown."
She also knows Obama is the first African American President of the United States, but she can't quite figure out what that actually means, really, and why it matters.
I remember this feeling. I was born in 1965. I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, a mostly white community, in a middle class, blue collar family.
I remember we had one black family at Ida Patterson Elementary. It was the first alternative school in Eugene. It was a "community" school. It was kind of a hippy school, really, all creative and self-directed and stuff. I took drama instead of science, and focused on poster making instead of math.
So, now you know why I did fine in college algebra, but had to work my butt off in high school to learn all the stuff I didn't.quite.get-the first time around. I make good posters though, and "being a tree" to the magic of Cat Steven's music is one of the fondest memories of my childhood.
Deanna Mosley was in my class. She was nice, I played with her sometimes. I thought her hair was cool. She wore it in braids with lots of fun barrettes at the end. I liked those barrettes. The bunny barrettes were especially cool. I got my mom to buy me some, but they never stayed in my fine, light brown hair very long. They always slipped out and got lost.
I didn't really think anything else about Deanna was out of the ordinary. Deanna was black. Of course I noticed, since she was the only black kid in our school, besides her brothers, I just didn't quite...care, one way or the other.
We read Harriet Tubman's book about the underground railroad in 5th grade. We learned about slaves. We learned they were whipped. I didn't quite understand why. It made me cry though, it seemed so unfair. I thought about Deanna. How awful, to be a slave, when it wasn't even your fault, what color you were born. You were what you were, you couldn't really control that.
We learned about Martin Luther King that year. We heard his speech. We talked about what it meant. We read about Rosa Parks. I didn't quite understand all of it. So I asked my mom.
She explained. She said Martin Luther King worked really hard to make sure the blacks could have equal rights, that they could vote. But he got assassinated. He got shot. He died because he was trying to change things. I didn't understand.
"Well," she finally said, "when I was a kid, not all the blacks could vote. They didn't have the same rights as the white people. They weren't treated as equals. That's what all the protests were about."
This floored me. I was completely confused.
"Why couldn't they vote?" I said. "I thought that was the whole point of the civil war, to free the slaves!"
I was ten. These things seemed simple enough.
"Well," she said, "they couldn't vote."
"But, WHY?" I demanded.
"Because they were black."
It all came crashing down then. Harriet Tubman. Being whipped. Babies taken from their mothers. Pastors being killed for making speeches. People getting sprayed with fire hoses. Kids not being able to drink at drinking fountains. Ladies who couldn't sit down in buses. Because they were black.
Deanna was black. She drank from the drinking fountain at school, just like the rest of us. And played tether ball, and made posters, and swayed like a tree to Cat Stevens singing Peace Train.
And I cried then. I understood that people were mean because they were mean, and it wasn't fair, and it didn't make sense. And a horrible guilt crept inside my heart then, because the white people were mean to the black people and I was white.
But my mom reminded me that not all the white people were mean, and a lot of them worked hard to change the laws, along with the black people, and things got changed, and that was what the equal rights movement was all about.
I tried to remember to smile at Deanna every day after that. I'm not sure she noticed. But it made me feel better.
I told this story to my daughter today when she came home from school. I told her how when my mom was a kid, not all the black people could vote, and that Obama being elected was a big deal.
It is a big deal because he is the first black president of the united states, but also because he is really smart, and gives fantastic speeches, and gives people hope, and helps us feel like America will be okay again, and we sort of need that right now.
"Oh," she said, "So, it's sort of like, finally, it doesn't really matter what color you are, you can be president?"
"Yes," I said, "I guess that's exactly it."