11/04/08 06:17 PM
I’ve often wondered what it might mean to “feel” American—to truly accept its glories and shame as my own. Looking at and listening to the Cindy McCains, George W. Bushes and Ronald Reagans of the world, I’ve wondered. The country they describe bears so little resemblance to the one in which I’ve lived, very different from the one in which my parents were raised. When they speak of American moral supremacy, of unsullied American justice and righteousness, of the deathless wisdom of the Founders, I cringe. Such statements omit me. For 188 of this nation’s 232 year history it was legal in America for a white man to first own or destroy my black life at will; and subsequently, it was legal to erase me and those like me from the mainstream of social, economic, and political life. This latter was apartheid, as deadly and vicious as that ugly word implies.
Yet, we speak of an unsullied America, an America somehow free from sin, a past and perpetual shining city on the hill for all men and women. That is a lie. My parents’ lives prove it is a lie, as did theirs before them. And yes, as their offspring, I prove it is a lie. It is my duty as their offspring to remind America that it is a lie. I owe it to them and what they sacrificed to remind us all that the McCains and Bushes and Reagans continue the tradition of omitting the sons and daughters of African slaves. I owe it to my forebears to remember that this perfect, mythical country is one where my past is quashed—psychologically deleted… one in which I am deleted. In this mythical, exceptional land, I am the blight that must be forgotten. I am its version of the shunned Victorian madwoman prone to blurt the family’s filthy secrets, locked in an attic to keep them hidden. The secrets slowly poison everything beneath the capacious manor roof, but the residents suffer the rot and stench to maintain their precious image of upright sanctimony.
Barack Obama, the half-black son of a Kenyan and a Kansan—and unmistakably “black” man who has unwaveringly adopted Afro-American culture, has just been elected President of the United States. Some will say that this proves American racism is dead. Some, like the Reagans and the Bushes and their political brethren, have been saying that for decades, and it remains transparently ignorant and self-serving. Countless tales from this election alone prove the point (here, here, and here, for a small taste.) There is ample research to prove that we have neither outgrown our American cultural history nor our animal distrust of those who don’t look like us.
No, this election does not mean the end of American prejudice, bias, racialism or racism. Job applicants with black-sounding names will still be 50% less likely to get a given job than those with less distinctive tags. However, the election does have deep meaning, particularly to me, and I’ll be so bold as to suggest that I may speak for many other blacks as well. I am not trying to belittle the satisfaction that whites might feel at this sign of progress—their own progress. However, such satisfaction is only personal if one overcame a conscious distaste for blacks in order to push the “Obama” button. If not, the satisfaction is second-hand; it’s an easy kumbaya moment. It costs nothing emotionally. It demands that you neither acknowledge an altered reality about yourself, nor adjust any long-held belief.
I have often wondered what it meant to feel fully American. Today, I received my first glimpse. I have no illusions. I know that the country’s catastrophic state bears as much credit for the Obama victory as his rational, intelligent response to it, and his skillful, disciplined campaign. Nonetheless, it is heartening to think that issues can trump our ugly racial scars—that we can stop picking at the scabs long enough to consider our own self-interest above our historical prejudice. Considering from whence we’ve come, that is huge. Think of all the blood that has been shed to get here. Hundreds of thousands died on U.S. soil to preserve the right to keep me in literal chains—to own me like you’d own a dog. Sociologists Steward E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck identified
"2805 [documented] victims of lynch mobs killed between 1882 and 1930 in ten southern states. Although mobs murdered almost 300 white men and women, the vast majority- almost 2,500-of lynch victims were African-American. Of these black victims, 94 percent died in the hands of white lynch mobs. The scale of this carnage means that, on the average, a black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate-driven white mob."
Untold numbers died from neglect, substandard, segregated medical care. Millions went uneducated and locked away from opportunity. Four little girls died when a white man bombed their church. Three civil rights workers, one black and two Jewish, were murdered because some white men hated us unto death. White assassins’ bullets murdered Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. This is a small sampling. Millions died in slave holds on the way to this country. The list goes on.
Some white Americans rail against such litanies. They call it living in the past, or insist that the past is insignificant. They can speak so foolishly because, in general, white Americans just don’t do the past. They don’t have to. And they don’t understand those who do. It’s at the root of many of our international failings. Many American memories don’t extend beyond their own lifetimes. We don’t understand that most of the world lives the past each and every day. Unlike the majority, black Americans live the past every day. We have no choice. We are its children. Southerners often live the past. War was fought in their backyards, and they lost. Americans have an uncanny ability to jettison the past with each generation. You can do that when you don’t have to look, every day, at scars it left behind.
I have often wondered what it meant to feel American, and today I have the glimpse because a black man, who is half-white, wears a sense of entitlement unsullied by any of the “can’t-haves” that history has carved into black psyches in the course of the American past. Raised by white women and men, he seems to have a sense that he did not have to snatch or steal his due from America, but that it was his for the taking. His most primal human relationship—with a mother—was with a white woman. He watched those who loved him—his grandparents—make disparaging remarks about those who happened to look like him. Confusion ensued, and led to his throwing in his cultural lot with the descendants of African slaves. However, his acceptance was “academic” if you will. It was learned, not lived. And in learning as opposed to living it, he did not have to absorb the degree of fear and suspicion that the rest of us inherit. Just the opposite; his white family and formative years in brown-skinned environments probably helped inure him to such fear and suspicion.
The attacks of “un-American” didn’t stick to Obama the way they could have to another black candidate because his outlook is just as white as it is black. For most of this country’s history, the word “American” was preceded by the unspoken word “white.” Only whites received the benefits of this country’s freedoms. To be fully American—to reap America’s fruits—was to be white. It is this attitude that McCain’s Republicans tried to exploit. Not only was the zeitgeist not on their side, they had a candidate whose upbringing spared him a deep sense of exclusion. He didn’t defend his American bona fides with litanies of forebears who had fought in wars or who had labored in southern fields, thereby evoking memories that discomfit so many. He did not react defensively in learned fear of the less-than-American status of earlier black generations. He carelessly flicked off the opposition’s arrows. He didn’t have to remind America that he was part of what they want to forget. He did not have to defend his Americanism because he was not looking at this country exclusively through a black history or white historical point-of-view that excluded him from it.
I remember as a young child in school in the late 60s and 70s hearing how in America, anyone can grow up to be President, and knowing that it was a lie, knowing that if America had the balls to bet her glory on that statement, America would lose. If any American could grow up to be President, and I could not (men died in the streets to secure my right to merely vote) then I did not qualify as American.
Rivers of black blood have been spilled. My parents and theirs fought and died to rip their rights from the majority’s avaricious grasp. To justify their illegal hold, the majority belittled, dehumanized, brutalized and sometimes killed me and mine. So I have often wondered what it might mean to feel fully American. Today, I, a black descendant of African slaves, get a glimpse, and it feels good. I get a glimpse because the white part of a half-black man raised by whites who adopted black culture allowed him to see a different country from the one my history has burned into my mind. In America’s long, perverse history of race relations, such absurdist irony is fitting.