God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
–from ” The Negro National Anthem” by James Weldon Johnson
Today in class, during a conversation about Harry Potter and Reganomics, a student made a passing comment about President Obama and the economy. He said “President Obama” so casually, so offhandedly, that I got choked up and had to look down for a minute to regain my composure. Nonchalance about President Obama can bring me to tears.
Of course, at any given moment I’m in danger of losing it, for no particularly good reason. Obama doesn’t even need to be mentioned, on the television, or on the radio. In line at the grocery store I’ll see a young black man in a suit and get weepy, any commercial featuring a little black boy…waterworks, seeing a little white girl hugging her little black girl friend…and don’t let me see an old black man or woman.
I’m in serious danger of dehydration.
My feelings are not unique, but I’ve been curious about the depth of my reaction. After all, I’m young enough to see the Civil Rights Movement as history, young enough to use the phrase “free at last” playfully, and young enough to feel I can wear multiple identities at once. Although neither of my parents graduated from college, no one was surprised that I did and any surprise about my decision to pursue a doctorate was about the fact that few people could imagine me sitting still long enough to complete a dissertation.
I still never thought I’d see a black president, and the success of our country regularly reduces me to tears. Why?
For whatever gains were made because of the Civil Rights Movement, racism and ignorance still run rampant and, with one exception, every black person I know has at least one glaring, scarring moment where they were denied something basic because of their skin color. I’m not talking about rude service in a restaurant but about being denied jobs, housing, and adequate health care. I am talking about young black people who followed the rules their parents and grandparents set out for them—go to college, get a degree, get a good job, dress appropriately, treat others with respect. It doesn’t work they way we thought it would. Yes, we have more opportunities than our parents and our grandparents, but in many ways we have less.
Faced with racism in its myriad forms, my generation has developed a series of responses (humor, anger, rap), all of which are inadequate at any real level. These responses, coping mechanisms if you will, did little more than thicken my skin to help me keep moving. Yes, I learned to brush things off, but swallow too many bitter pills, and they form a knot in the pit of your spirit, a bitter knot comprised of righteous anger, pain, rejection, confusion, and dashed hopes.
The election of THIS black president has cut that cord loose. And so I’ve been crying a lot. It’s a big knot (I was six-years old the first time I was called a nigger, though it’s a memory that belongs more to my mother than it does to me), so it’s loosening takes time. But oh my does it feel good.
It goes too far to say it has been replaced by hope, but the absence of a certain kind of deep despair will suffice for now.
This is not to suggest that I believe all this “post racial” claptrap. As Frank Rich put it so well earlier this week in “White Like Me” :
For all our huge progress, we are not “post-racial,” whatever that means. The world doesn’t change in a day, and the racial frictions that emerged in both the Democratic primary campaign and the general election didn’t end on Nov. 4. As Obama himself said in his great speech on race, liberals couldn’t “purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap” simply by voting for him. And conservatives? The so-called party of Lincoln has spent much of the past month in spirited debate about whether a white candidate for the party’s chairmanship did the right thing by sending out a “humorous” recording of “Barack the Magic Negro” as a holiday gift.
But the times they are a changing, so much so that when Reverend Lowery ended his poetic, rousing benediction, I could laugh heartily through my tears:
when black will not be asked to get back,
when brown can stick around,
when yellow will be mellow,
when the red man can get ahead, man,
And when white will embrace what is right.