Friday, January 16, 2009

A Big Damn Deal

Once in awhile, I get feedback from readers about what they like-- or don't like. General consensus seems to be: the more personal a post is, the better. One man hates it when I get academic; another hates it when I get political. Well, brace yourselves, because I'm about to do both.

I don't really like it either when I get political, but hell, 2008 was an election year! If these matters were not occupying your mind, you were squandering the gift of living in a democracy. In my humble opinion.

Thank God election year is behind us. And I'm stoked that an intelligent, ethical man will finally hold presidential office. I pray he is as intelligent and ethical as I think he is.

And I pray that the evil of white supremacy will not bring about any ugliness that will sets us back. There is nothing uglier or more dangerous than threatened white supremacy.
I'm annoyed by people who grinch about the fanfare of Obama's inauguration. It's a big damn deal!

People who have never been disenfranchised can never really understand what disenfranchisement feels like. I've only had a relatively tiny taste of it myself, but I can tell it's a soul-killer.

At one point, many white people considered black people to be livestock! As recently as 1955, it was perfectly acceptable to treat people of color as if they weren't good enough to share a water fountain, to share a bus seat, to share a front door, to share a school or even a graveyard with a white person. A 14-year-old boy was lynched in 1955. Even today, young black men and boys are often 'guilty until proven innocent.' Fear and loathing of black people is alive and well in Humboldt County; I have seen and heard it myself.

So for an intelligent, ethical man who is also Black to get elected is a big damn deal.

My dear intelligent reader Anonymous recommended the film Places in the Heart to me. He or she thought I would find interesting the themes of the Great Depression and a woman struggling to hold her home and family together. I did.

But the part that moved me most intensely was the theme of deep-seated, Southern white supremacy and the implacability of its social order.
The film was set in Waxahachie, Texas, where I lived for the first three years of my life and where I still have relatives. A sheriff is accidentally killed by a drunken black kid who is shooting at bottles.

It seems almost the 'natural' consequence in that place and time, that before the sheriff's body is cold, some ordinary, well-respected dudes from town drag the boy to death behind their truck then string him up in a tree.

While the white people gather at a wake, the black people cut down the boy and his skinny body falls into their arms. No law enforcement and no courtroom involved. No one even comments.

The widow would then have lost her farm, and her children would have been farmed out to relatives, if not for the ingenuity and hard work of a black homeless guy who helps her plant and harvest cotton.

Yet Moses has to sleep in the barn, never in the house. He has to hang back and let the woman negotiate prices even though it is he who knows the score. When she strikes a good bargain, threatened white supremacy in the form of the cotton gin owner, plus all his friends, the well-respected dudes from town, show up in sheets and pointy hoods to kill Moses.

The most powerful scene in the film is the final one, where all the ghosts of what should have been show up to take holy communion together, singing my favorite hymn of all time, "I Come to the Garden Alone." Some viewers saw that scene as sweet and moving, as if in heaven all these differences and tragedies will be behind us. But I see it as deeply ironic, a scene that could never, ever have happened there in the house of God in Waxahachie in 1931, demonstrating the incredible hypocrisy that allows these injustices to occur.

So people are as excited by Obama's skin color as they are about his political abilities. The fact that his skin color did not keep him from being elected is a big damn deal. We are a nation in need of hope. We're surrounded by evidence of our deterioration into a giant ugly commercial. We need a sign of progress, and we want this to be a sign of progress.

It's a mistake to think we can ever relax our vigilance for freedom, equality and justice.

Here is a quote worth reading, which I read today on the wall of the Student Services Center:
Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will. -- Frederick Douglass (former slave and the first African-American to be nominated for vice-president -- in 1872)
Watching Places in the Heart was the perfect kick-off for the class I am about to take starting next week, The Law and Literature of Slavery.

I signed up for the class only because I am required to take an American Lit class and because the time slot fit my preferred schedule.

However, like all parts of life, synchronicity (for lack of a better word) was hard at work.

Thank you for the film recommendation, Anonymous.

17 comments:

beachcomber said...

"As recently as 1955"...

As recently as 1975, when my husband and I were first married and living briefly in Camden, South Carolina, remnants remained....People called the stockroom kid "boy" when they directed him to carry their bags out of the Searsnrobucks where I worked. Faded "whites only" and "blacks only" signs still hung on the outside of buildings. While the paint was old and many people were enlightened, those signs were not painted over or removed, a fact that chilled this California girl to the bone.

While boggles my feeble mind today are the "grinches" who say that Obama "isn't even pure black". WTF?! I argued that he APPEARS black which means he was treated as if he were black....he's black for all intents and purposes. Somehow, because he's of mixed blood AND educated, he shouldn't be able to lay claim to the black race nor they him. Oy!

Ernie Branscomb said...

I know at least one person that stated emphatically that they were voting for Obama for the expressed reason that he was “Black”. I suspect that there were many others that did the same thing. It is my feeling that race entered the election far more than it should have. Before the election, the race issue was pushed aside, and his qualifications were stressed. I was actually shocked to see the uproarious celebration after election that we “finally have a black President”. So, I can only conclude that race was a major issue in this campaign. Which way it affected the election, I’m not sure that we will ever know.

If race is “No big deal” why was it such a great big damn deal?, as you agree it is.

Indie said...

Because we hope, we hope, we hope that it means we have come a long way as a nation of human beings.

Kato said...

A timely post on the weekend of Dr. King's birthday (which Obama is planning to turn into a day of service in the future, a more fitting tribute than simply a day off school). That is one of my favorite Frederick Douglas quotes and is eternally relevant. Changing laws can't change prejudices, and racism is as deeply entrenched in us as is the concept of race itself.

While I voted for the intelligent, articulate ideas and diplomatic calm he displays, I'm also celebrating the prospect of having an American president with a face that more accurately represents the diversity of our nation, and I'm hoping he'll turn out to be more than just a figurehead to mollify the masses.

Oh, and thank you for taking the few seconds to actually type out the words "in my humble opinion" rather than just those annoying four letters...

Indie said...

Kato, your second paragraph says exactly what I was trying to say, exactly, more elegantly and in fewer words. That is just the point I was trying to get across.

Racism and otherness are constants. Have you ever read any Edward Said?

Indie said...

I am so excited that my blog gives me a chance to converse with intelligent, interesting people! Thank you for engaging these ideas.

Kristen said...

Dear Indie,

I don't feel intelligent enough this morning to be witty, but I want to let you know that I am here and reading.

I loved the quote you shared with us. I will never look at agitation within me or society with the same plea for it to end. Thank you for that bit of wisdom.

In Joy,
Kristen

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you like Places in the Heart, Indie. It touched me deeply when I saw it years ago, and I had a feeling you'd find much of value in it.

I checked the movie listing this morning, especially for you. Gran Torino, a movie you want to see, is playing this week at the Minor Theater and at the Mill Creek Theater, conveniently located in McKinleyville.

Wishing you all the best, Indie!

Ernie Branscomb said...

"I am so excited that my blog gives me a chance to converse with intelligent, interesting people! Thank you for engaging these ideas."

Actually, that was me pretending to be intelligent and engaging. I use my “Walter Mitty” persona when I want to seem well versed. It fools most people, including myself.

Indie said...

Thanks, Anonymous! I hope my weekend plays out in such a way that includes going to the movies. My son thinks Gran Torino sounds interesting too. He saw a preview for it recently.

You're going to need a handle or a link or something if you're going to keep offering such good advice.

Beachcomber, yes, the relics of white supremacy in the South are creepy aren't they? I didn't even mention those I recall from Texas. I lived there until 1974 and then again from 1980 to 1984. Maybe someday I'll write a post just about what I saw.

I have to wonder who is saying Obama isn't black enough. That would be an important clue to what on earth that is supposed to do rhetorically, what that statement is supposed to accomplish.

Hardly anyone in the U.S. is NOT of mixed blood. I like to call myself Swedish because I have a grandfather from Sweden, but I have three other grandparents with a whole assortment of lineages. Unless you're a recent immigrant, the chances of you being pure anything in the U.S. are pretty slim.

So that statement means something other than its bare facts. It is meant to take away something from Obama-- his claim to being an African-American man. Why take that from him? Because someone is considering it an asset, feeling threatened by Obama and wanting to reduce his power somehow, take away an asset they perceive as too powerful.

Let them try (As long as he doesn't have to spend his whole presidency testifying about cigars).

The fact that his race is considered an asset is cause for celebration. It hints at the demise of white supremacy.

Indie said...

Kristen, yes, that's what I was thinking too when I read it.

In the county where I live we have an unusually large supply of idealistic young people, and sometimes they get tiresome.

But it's good to remember what Douglass said and that those are the same people who would have manned (and womanned) the French Resistance during WWII, and every revolution, throughout history. Without their idealism and drive we'd just be sheep.

Indie said...

Ernie, you are endlessly wise and see the big picture like nobody's business! Your modesty just makes you even cooler.

cecilia said...

Hi Indie - thank you for your kind comment on my blog. I agree with you, it is a _big_ deal that we very, very shortly will experience the first black (well, mixed) American president since the beginning of US history. Needless to say, it wasn't Obama's racial background that swung it for me, I genuinely believe that no one could be more suited for this job than he will, and it will be so exciting to watch what he will do for this country.

Have now found your blog, so will keep reading it!!

Take care, Cecilia

Indie said...

Hej Cecilia, thank you for taking the time to pay a visit to my blog in return. I am also excited to see what will happen in the next four years.

Paul said...

One overcomes by marching on. A person who bases his,or her, opinion of another person based on pigmentation is a fool!! However, this attitude is not limited to the white race.

Indie said...

Yes, it isn't usually about skin color. That's just a smokescreen. It's about power and power structures and who is favored by them.

A better word for what I'm writing about is hegemony ("the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group" -Merriam-Webster), but that's a word out of academia.

White supremacy is close enough for the purposes of this post. But it doesn't explain women's experiences of power/powerlessness.

Kym said...

"We need a sign of progress, and we want this to be a sign of progress."

AMEN!I'm not much for praying but I'm praying hard that he lives up to his potential. But just the fact that he is black and elected gives me hope for our nation's progress towards peace between races.