National Day of Service: Update

As is so often the case when I set out to do something for someone else, I am the one who benefits. While not many of my neighbors donated to the food drive I planned, those who dropped by gave generously. Five bags of food will go to my local food pantry, which sent out a call because of the “newly poor” who have sought them out.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here was snowy and cold, so I was happy to be in all day. Some of my neighbors simply left their donations in the basket by my door while others rang the doorbell. Friends came by on and off during the day to bring by food and visit, and that was quite cozy. I had hot cider with some friends and Pig’s Snout Scotch with others.

The day made me realize how much I miss the “visiting” part of Louisiana Southern culture where people come by for a little bit—sometimes for just 20 minutes—and chat over a beverage and treats. I miss that a lot.

Of course, one day of service is not enough, so some of my thoughts will be focused on what to do next…so long as I don’t get too cold (seriously, I get cold in the summer).


At Last: Cutting the Gordian Knot

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.



Inauguration Looks

Dan Quayle looked bloated

Jimmy Carter looked ready to go and build a house

Barbara Bush looked fit enough to complete the Bataan Death March…in one day.

Bill Clinton looked furious.

Dick Cheney looked like the love child of Mr. Burns and Dr. Strangelove

Michelle Obama looked like a Faberge egg in green gloves, a fabulous Faberge egg…

Joe Lewis looked dignified.

Rick Warren looked…well, all I could see was his homophobia, so I couldn’t tell you how he looked.

Aretha Franklin looked like she thought the size of the bow on her hat should be as expansive as her…voice (don’t be tacky, people).

Yo-Yo Ma looked like he was having a blast. Itzhak Perlman looked distracted.

Barack looked startled when neither he nor the chief justice could get the oath right

Malia looked pleased, “Good speech,” she told her father when he returned to his seat.

Elizabeth Alexander looked terrified but fabulous in red. One wonders why the inaugural poem could not have been a haiku—now that would have taken skill.

Reverend Joseph Lowery looked wonderful.

Our Easy Instincts

What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives – from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry – an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.

—Barack Obama Philadelphia

I’ll admit that I thought Barack Obama’s “historic train ride” was kind of hokey, but given then I got all weepy and inspired when I stumbled upon CNN’s coverage of it, maybe hokey is the order of the day.

One of the many things to admire about Obama is his ability to offer so much in so few words, to pull language from the past and use it to pull us forward. He does that in this single sentence. He’s right. As a new administration attempts to pull a divided country together, it’s the easy instincts we all must resist. This does not mean disconnecting our critical faculties, and I hear it as a charge to the left as much as it is a charge to those on the right. In fact, I think this applies more to the left than to than it does to anyone else. Liberals, Democrats, Lefties, “Progressives”—whatever you choose to call them, me—have spent the past eight years seething at the inadequacies and atrocities of the Bush-Cheney years. We’ve been chomping at the bit to make the world right again, and we are just smug enough with our righteous notions of what it means to be right that our easy instincts could well be mistaken for our better angels.

The blessing and the curse of the left is its lack of uniformity; the power of the right has, until recently, been its discipline. In the crucial early days of the Obama administration, let’s try to take a second, even a third look at our easy instincts. He knows what we want:

  • Universal health care
  • Bush and Company held to account
  • Guantanamo closed
  • Reversal of Bush tax cuts
  • Our soldiers out of Iraq

The list goes on and on…and on. And apparently the majority of Americans polled understand that it will take a long time to move on some of these goals. I hope this patience lasts, and I hope the left can channel its critical faculties into multiple directions at once. Speak out when President Obama makes decisions that undermine our country’s principles (inviting Rick Warren to participate in anyway in the inauguration) at the same time that we continue to answer his call to service and learn to talk to moderate conservatives. We should choose our battles carefully and gird ourselves for the roller coaster rider ahead. Most importantly, it’s vital to remember why we voted for Barack Obama in the first place and do what we can to support him as he leads the country out of the morasses that entangle us.

This is truly a rare moment, an awakening for so many, but it will be easy to forget the feelings, the emotion, the goosebumps when the messy business of governance overtakes us all. It is then that we’ll need our better angels. We’ll have to find them; too much is at stake.

National Day of Service

President-elect Obama has reminded us that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is the perfect day to honor or fellow citizens through a national day of service. I want to give him a chance and pitch in however I can, but my civic impulses were blocked by the icy cold weather we’ve had this past week. It’s been a battle between my conscience (help out, pitch in, support the new president) and my toes (my feet get colder quicker than any part of my body and just never warm up).

It then occurred to me that I live in an apartment building with a good number of neighbors, so, frostisity (what? that’s a word!) being the mother of keeping warm, I’ll be having an indoor food drive on Monday, January 19th. I’ll even have hot cider and cookies for those who drop by.

I’ll also be chuckling at this Public Service Announcement I saw when I was visiting my parents over the holidays.