Although my parents both passed away nearly twenty years ago, ever since Barack Obama’s presidential run began picking up momentum, I’ve wondered what my mother and father would have thought about the last three years.
During the dawning of the twentieth century, Charlie and Edna both grew up in the boroughs of New York and left school in their early teens to help their parents support siblings younger than themselves. They both faced racial disparity in the workforce and expected to be shunned by unions and paid less than whites doing the same work.
They also witnessed a NAACP march down Fifth Avenue in 1917 that included 10,000 black men, women and children, and saw the brute force of more than one race riot and were aware of countless other riots in cities all over the country, usually sparked by another all-too-common act of police brutality. They also saw the annual number of lynchings around the country go up during lean economic times. Because of this awareness early in their lives, they had to consider themselves part of the “Negro problem” in this melting pot known as the United States of America.
Furthermore, they both had relatives who fought in the Spanish American War, and in World War I, only to be denied basic citizenship rights after leaving the frontlines to return home to the Jim Crow South. They were also aware that a large percentage of Negroes “down home” could not vote, and that any of them daring to register might lose their jobs or lives, a situation that only began to be rectified in 1965.
They also saw the white-flight from the city of Philadelphia, where they finally bought a home during World War II, and experienced the property values in that neighborhood take a severe dive to the point where their proud home was not worth a dime twenty years after they signed a mortgage contract. But they already knew in order to assure surviving whatever economic downturns the future might bring, they would be tested and have to work hard and long hours, and count themselves blessed to have employment. Otherwise, how could they provide for me and my two sisters, and by example teach us the survival skills we’d need as adults?
I was ten years old when the harsh reality of the racist world shocked me during the summer of 1955. That’s when I saw the infamous, nightmarish photograph on the cover of Jet magazine, which showed the battered, bruised, decomposed face of 14-year-old Emmett Till in his coffin.
Before putting him on a bus in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi, his mother, Mamie Till, warned her son to acquiesce to white southerners and not hesitate to get on his knees and bow to their power if the need arose.
Obviously, the child was too brash to heed his mother’s warnings and was accused of whistling at a white woman. The woman’s husband and half-brother drug Emmett from his uncle’s house, demanding that he repent. They were later acquitted of beating and shooting him, and then tossing his mutilated body, bound to a cotton mill fan, into the Tallahatchie River.
Mamie Till chose to have an open-casket funeral, explaining, “So the world can see what they did to my boy.”
Since that day, so many years ago, I know many reasons to believe that racism is still alive in the hearts of some. However, I have also met many whites whom I think of as brothers and sisters.
On one occasion when I was in high school, as part of the first influx of “Negroes” to attend the school, I brazenly cut in on a couple dancing at an all-white dance held at lunchtime. I was stunned when a number of white guys chose to fight beside me in the street later that day where a mob had gathered. It was those rough and ready white guys who became my best friends. How could I do anything but cherish the friendship I had with them when they willingly put themselves on the, seemingly, losing side of a battle because of what they believed was the right thing to do when they didn’t even know my name?
All of this, and a long stream of memories surrounding the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, were actively parading through my mind on August 27, 2008-fifty-three years to the day after the brutal murder of Emmett Till–when Barack Obama won the presidential nomination at the Democratic Convention.
But I am certain I was not alone wishing that my parents could have savored the victorious euphoria so many Americans, of all colors, experienced so deeply that day. Nevertheless, I am certain my parents would have been cautious-minded enough to realize that there would be backlash up the road for Obama to face. I also know they would not have been surprised by the alarming rise of hate groups in America; Sarah Palin-like talk about “taking back the country” and the vitriol spouted on right-wing radio and TV, and the oft-asked questions about Obama being a Muslim, and about the legitimacy of his birth certificate.
No, none of that would have surprised my parents if they had survived more than a century of seeing how our government works when it comes to dealing with the disenfranchised segments of our society. They would be able see beyond the veils of deceit and know it is still the rich who are in control, and that corporations have the most power to determine who is elected to serve the people and how they will serve them. Consequently, they would have expected the Republicans to do exactly what they are doing, obstructing Obama at every turn. They would hear beyond the conservative-slanted, often venomous, self-righteous speeches and know it is not really a question of debatable issues about whether Obama’s policies are the right or wrong ones. It is the man, himself, whom they feel they must defeat at every turn.
I also suspect that my mother and father would laugh at the notion that we live in a post-racial society. They would recognize that fictional projection as mere propaganda designed to keep the masses content as the one-percent continue to appease their endless greed. After all, we are a capitalistic nation whose forefathers robbed one set of people of their land and made slaves of another race to gain their wealth by any means and call it Manifest Destiny.
Bottom line: When greed rules it is the enemy of inclusion, the abuser of compassion, the jailer of freedom, the dictator of truth and the tyrant of war, and no president, alone, is going to change that or win a second term in office.
When Obama challenged the Congressional Black Caucus at their annual awards dinner, “Take off your bedroom slippers and put on your marching shoes,” that’s an Obama line I’m sure would have brought a smile to Charlie and Edna’s faces the same as it did mine.