Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our long national nightmare is (almost) over


There's not much I can add to the eloquent and emotional words so many have spoken and written in an attempt to express what Barack Obama's victory means to them. What I can add is a personal perspective and a few memories of growing up during the civil rights movement and witnessing segregation first hand.

When I was a child, our family visited the South every few years. My mother was born in Georgia and had family in Florida; my produce-selling father had lived and worked in Florida seasonally and met my mother there. I don't have any race-related memories of the times we traveled by train from Philadelphia to Gainesville, but traveling by car was another story.

Car trips meant stopping in Southern states and being exposed to segregated restrooms, water fountains and restaurants. Those memories are hazy; I can mostly remember this vague sensation that Negroes, the term our family used, were lesser people, diseased and dirty and definitely to be feared. This impression didn't come from my parents. It came from simply walking the streets of Georgia or South Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s.

Even in the North, I can remember using coin-operated public restrooms (remember those?) in train stations and especially on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, and hearing women admonish their children not to use a toilet that a Negro had just used. A child couldn't help but absorb some of that trepidation.

Then came the race riots. I won't go into that history; all I will say is that if you didn't live through that time, you cannot imagine the terror people felt.

In April of 1968, I visited Paris on a high school trip. Race riots were the furthest thing from my mind---until the day before we were scheduled to return to New Jersey. The news was all around us: Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. The fear returned. I recall looking out the window of the plane as it descended toward Philadelphia International Airport; I fully expected to see Philly and Camden, its neighbor across the river, engulfed in flames.

Today I heard someone mocking Jesse Jackson for crying as he listened to Barack Obama speak the night before. I don't care who your presidential preference was; I don't care what you think of Barack Obama---if you can’t understand why people were crying and taking to the streets in sheer jubilation last night, then you're far too cynical for me.

Our long national nightmare, the one that's (almost) over, isn't our history of racism. I'm hopeful about the future, but I'm also realistic about the deep racial divide among some segments of our society. Racism isn't the nightmare I'm referring to. The nightmare is the Bush administration. Free at last, free at last---thank God Almighty, we're (almost) free at last.

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