This speech that Barack Obama gave yesterday on the subject of race--I tell you, it does my soul good. If that puts me in the tank for Obama, so be it; if this guy is spouting a line, then I've fallen for it. But I believe him. I think he sees something that's really there, and that nobody else has seen quite as clearly as he has: "This nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one." And that, despite the deep imperfections we all embody, that "what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation."
I believe this is true, in part, because of how much I have changed, and because of how much the world I live in has changed in the half-century I've been on this planet.
I grew up just south of Atlanta, next door to my grandfather's farm. Visible from the living room of our house was the tarpaper shack that my grandparents rented out to their tenant farmers, a black family named Strozier. I am not exaggerating for literary effect: this was a shack, and it was made of tarpaper, though the inside walls were insulated, if you can call it that, with layers of newsprint. It was four rooms and a porch, built up off the ground in the time-honored country way, and it did not have indoor plumbing. I grew up thinking that this was the way black people lived. I knew white people who were poor, too--we certainly weren't rich ourselves--but I just assumed that to be really poor, you had to be black, and vice versa. This was just a law of the universe, like gravity. And this immutable fact--that whites and blacks coexisted on friendly terms but were in no way equal--was reflected in the doors of the two waiting rooms of the dentist we went to in Fairburn, too. There were no signs on those doors, but the signs had been there so long that you could still see their imprint against the wood. One door said "white" and the other door said "colored." This did not seem at all strange to me. But life teaches you lessons, if you let it.
First lesson: In 1964, when I was seven, I was walking home from school one day with my friend Mike Polston. My daddy was a Goldwater conservative (this was the historic year Georgia went Republican for the first time since Reconstruction). and I was incensed to learn that Mike's daddy planned on voting for Johnson. "If you vote for Johnson, you'll have to go to school with niggers," I said. One of the realities of childhood is that you wind up repeating things you've heard without knowing what they mean, and that's what I had done. Nobody in my home used the word "nigger"--not because it was racist, but because it was uncouth; my parents taught me that the correct term was "colored"--so I don't know where I'd heard this line, but I said it, and the instant I said it I realized that Lovett and Roberta were walking home right behind us. And that was the other idiocy: the possibility I was taunting my playmate with was already a reality in our school (though not because of anybody's progressive policies; there simply had never been enough black children in our district to have ever justified a separate school system, or else I'm sure there would have been one). I've never forgotten the searing shame I felt. Lovett and Roberta never said a thing, never gave any indication they'd heard me. That's the way things worked back then, too.
Second lesson: In 1981, I was a rookie reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, sent to cover an inquest in Walton County, Georgia into the death of Lynn McKinley Jackson, a young black man found hanging from a tree in the woods there. Walton County happens to be the scene of the last recorded public lynching in the United States, in 1947. That's not a widely known fact, but it's encoded in the DNA of every black person who has lived in that county ever since. Many of those black residents crowded into the courtroom that day to hear the jury's verdict on this young man's death, and I still remember the collective gasp from that crowd when the jury returned the verdict: suicide. That instant brought home to me that there were two definitions of "history" and two definitions of "justice" in the United States. There was the conventional wisdom, and then there was the version that black people knew. Sometimes they overlapped, but often they didn't, and where a gulf existed between the two, it was huge. So was the amount of energy it took all of us, all day every day, to pretend--at least most of the time--that the gulf did not exist.
Third lesson: right now. We just moved into a new subdivision. It's only two miles from our old house and in the same county--but on our old street, the neighbors were all white except for two families at the end of the street, who were black. I had not realized until after we moved into our new house that now the situation was reversed: we are the only white family in our cul de sac. I would be lying if I did not admit that this fact has given me pause. It made me uneasy, in a way I could not define, and at the same time I felt ashamed of my uneasiness. The correct liberal view would be to say, "Don't be silly! White or black--makes no difference. Black people are just like you." But no one who has grown up where I grew up, and has had the experiences I've had, would believe this. We are not the same; our histories are profoundly different, and to pretend otherwise is insulting. How different? Let's take money. My husband and I bought this house with a substantial down payment made possible by money left to me by my mother--the results of some investments my father made back in the 1960s and 70s, which were possible for him to make because he surfed the wave of the unprecedented prosperity that followed World War II in this country. Part of his money came from real estate, which ballooned in valued over this period. During that same period, there were real estate covenants in force in Prince George's County, Maryland, where I now live, which severely curtailed the home-buying options for black families. They were cut out of much of the real estate boom, just like they were cut out of many of the career opportunities open to my father. (The economic research division at Delta Air Lines, where my father worked, did not hire its first black employee until the mid 1970s.) This is not to say that the teachers, police officers and nurses who live in our cul de sac didn't benefit from inheritances, too. For all I know, they did. But statistically speaking, that's not as likely for them as it is for me. The mortgages they got likelier came with higher interest rates than the one we found. And while we can afford (for now, anyway) for me to work part-time, every other family in our cul de sac is a two-wage-earner family. "You work at home?" one of my new neighbors said to me when she learned I was a writer. Her eyes got misty. "You are so blessed." Yes. Yes, I am. And, in historical terms, race has something to do with that. Or, as Barack Obama put it in his speech yesterday:
"Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations."
I also know that Obama's words are themselves are a generalization; in my life, I've crossed paths with black people who had plenty of inherited wealth. I can count them on one hand, but yes, they exist--and I have no doubt that their grandparents probably looked down their noses at my grandparents, redneck toilers that my grandparents were. But the exception, as the saying goes, proves the rule.
Obama's speech happened to come two weeks after our big move, and just on the heels of my own realization that, you know, I'm over this stupid uneasiness; I like it here. Our neighbors seem to be nice folks. We may become good friends, we may end up hating each other, we may just remain polite acquaintances, but I'm pretty sure at this point that whatever happens in the next few years, race won't have much to do with it. Basically, they seem to want exactly what we want: a quiet neighborhood where property values are maintained and where kids can play outside safely with other kids in the neighborhood.
Getting over the racial stalemate in this country--acknowledging that great big gulf I discovered years ago, and finding ways to go over, around or through it--"requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper," Obama said in his speech yesterday. I do not hold myself up as any paragon of enlightenment when I say I think I've gotten to that point. I'm just saying: this is where I've come from, and this is where I am. And I do not think I am alone.