Thoughts of Water on the Eve of Obama’s Inauguration

Certainly everyone recognizes that the election of Barack Obama, a man with a Black African father, to be President of the USA is one of the most important milestones in our history. Yet I wonder if younger people, for whom the extreme racism of the past is not something they have lived through, and who see African-Americans everywhere in the media and filling all sorts of roles in society, don’t in truth underestimate how dramatic a change it represents from even the time when Obama came into this world.

President-Elect (I need say for a few more hours) Obama was born in 1961. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed while Obama was a young child and had little direct effect on his early life, since he didn’t live in the South or even in the USA for part of that time. Some have maintained that by being the son of a Kenyan and a White American woman and by spending four of his early years in Indonesia, Obama has led a life quite different from and easier than that of many African-Americans born of the descendants of slaves and growing up in the South or in the ghetto; say, for example, that of Condoleeza Rice, who grew up in Birmingham and was friends with one of the little girls killed in the infamous church bombing of 1963. That may be true, but it is also completely beside the point as regards the significance of Obama’s election.

To the millions of White people trapped in the racist belief system that largely defined and thoroughly deformed the South (and which seeped into the rest of the country, in a somewhat diluted, mostly unofficial, form, as well) at the time when Obama was born, such a man with such features was not one to be let into one’s own house as a social equal, never mind the White House as one’s President. And let us not forget that the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools in 1954 involved the Topeka, Kansas (home State of Obama’s mother) school system; even de jure segregation was not restricted to the South. That wasn’t long ago!

No one alive today remembers slavery, which had, let us recall, been abolished for less than a hundred years at the time of Obama’s birth. We can read about slavery in the USA—I recommend Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made for a thorough description of life under slavery and an analysis of how the oppressive system was maintained—and try to imagine what it must have been like, but imagining is not living. Thanks be to God, we have neither felt not inflicted the lashes of the whip, nor lived, as Lincoln did, knowing that whippings and worse were being carried out in our country, with the sanction of the law, on men and women viewed as outright property to be bought and sold.

As those who lived during slavery days have all passed away, so have more and more of us who grew up in the days when Slavery’s unrepentant ghost ruled in the South, during the so-called Jim Crow era, in which separation (and of course inequality) of the races was cruelly enforced by the State. I came to manhood as a White person in Texas during that time and under that system. Though I have no doubt that the system as it existed in Alabama and Mississippi was even more oppressive than the one in Texas, except perhaps in some parts of East Texas, the Texas one was bad enough, unspeakably bad in fact. Yet, anything one is born into seems “normal” at first, and it is only over time that both the injustice and illogic of everyday life can come to be recognized.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about my own experience and the development of my views and feelings later, but for now I will just make one point. It was the courageous Black demonstrators such as the students who engaged in the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960, that made it inescapably obvious to me that the wrongs of this system were keenly felt by those it oppressed, and that it had to be ended. It’s one thing to recognize an evil abstractly and another to have it firmly grab you by the collar to demonstrate how painfully unbearable it is for those suffering its most direct effects.

Eventually the Civil Rights Movement had the whole country by the collar. President Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress because its time had come, as shown by the thousands of Civil Rights demonstrators clearly willing to die for the Cause, and not because he was out in front of the country on the issue. Yet, he was out in front of his fellow White Southerners, and I’m glad it was a President from Texas who played an important role in abolishing all the trappings of Jim Crow.

Even the recognition that the system must be ended as soon as possible was not enough to bring a full realization of just how bad it was to live on the oppressed side of the color line. I remember how in 1964 or 1965, my wife and I, both students at the University of Texas, had occasion, through work in a political campaign trying to elect the first Black man to the Austin City Council, to get to know a few people from the other side of the racial divide in a way that allowed us to speak freely.

During a conversation with one of the Black campaign workers, a man named Ed, who was a few years older than I, we learned more about what the thoughts had been of those suffering directly from the racial oppression. Although it shouldn’t have been, it was shocking to hear Ed matter-of-factly talk of the intense hatred he and his high school mates had felt toward Whites. They had fantasized about the most effective way to kill a large number of us at one time. An attack from the air on a crowd at the University of Texas football stadium had been deemed most promising, as there would have been tens of thousands of Whites in a concentrated mass, with no Black fans in the stands and no Black players on the field. No Black players—can anyone who wasn’t alive then imagine that? How common were such fantasies of mass killings? I imagine they were common.

Racial prejudice went far beyond wanting social separation of the races for a lot of people, for the Jim Crow segregation system served not only to limit social contact between the races (especially between Black men and White women, it should be noted), but also to stigmatize Black people as inferior and, beyond that, as irremediably unclean in a way that could contaminate Whites who made physical contact with them.

I can remember, as a young child, having some adult (not sure who, but not my mother or either of her parents, I’m sure) telling me not to put money in my mouth because “some nigger” might have handled it. The point of this was to convince me I shouldn’t put coins in my mouth, not to  promote the idea that Black people were especially unclean, which was assumed in the admonition; but of course this is the way such notions are transmitted to a young child. I don’t remember accepting that idea fully, as it didn’t really make sense, but I’m sure its prevalence had an effect on my early view of things.

Consider the maintenance and enforcement of separate drinking fountains for the two races. From where we now stand, separate drinking fountains for the races might seem an inconvenience and an indignity, one more way to make a point of the second class status of Black people, yet not that significant compared to impediments to voting, gross inequality in education, and subservience enforced by violence. The race-specific fountains were found only in places where the races were bound to be intermingled to some extent: court houses, train stations, department stores, etc. There was no need for a dual-fountain system in the schools, which were already single-race institutions. But it would be wrong to minimize the effect of segregated water fountains. The segregation of water fountains showed how deeply irrational the ugly ideology of racism was, and at the same time served to reinforce and perpetuate that ideology.

If Barack Obama and his mother had come to my home State when he was two years old, one can imagine the stares or worse that this White woman with an obviously mixed-race child would have received. What if her little boy had been thirsty? Which public drinking fountain should little Barack’s mother have held him up to? White for her race or Colored for his? The segregation of water fountains was based on the way you looked. Two-year-old Barack Obama, future President of the United States, would have been judged Colored and thus too contaminated with Blackness to drink from the White fountain.

Back then, a White person conscious of the injustice of the system, might still, while maintaining hope for reform towards greater equality within the confines of segregation, make the case that separation of the races was something that each race really wanted and that having schools and other facilities that were separate but equally funded, say, was a morally acceptable solution to the problem of racial differences and antagonisms. And in fact some people did hold such views. One could work for more funding for the Black schools, at the risk of being called a “nigger lover” of course, without overturning the whole system of segregation.

But what about those separate water fountains? They betray the diabolical worm in the rotten heart of the Jim Crow system, exposing the depth of irrationality, fear, and superstition that was inherent in the ideology of White supremacy: that the Black race was considered, not just different, not just inferior even, but unclean in the way that lepers were in the Old Testament and that the caste of Untouchables still is in some rural areas of India.

So even if the schools had been made “equal” and the streets in the Black neighborhoods paved (as so many weren’t), those segregated fountains would have remained to proclaim that one race was considered unclean, which in practice of course served to justify the denial of equality of resources and living conditions to people of that race. And every Black person that drank from the Colored fountain had to do it knowing there was more to it than mere social separation of the races involved. Every White person had the idea of possible contamination through interracial contact reinforced or first suggested by those signs designating race above the fountains.

As an aside, I might add that President-Elect Obama’s mixed-race parentage does more to demolish the myth of racial contamination than the election of a “completely Black” person to the Presidency would have. Obama’s election likely causes Nazi Klansman David Duke even more consternation than Jesse Jackson’s would have.

Laws can change attitudes. We have seen it. Some false ideas can’t survive long without the oxygen supplied by State support. Can laws change hearts? Yes, over time certain laws can—by changing behavior in a way that nullifies fear. When those artificial, State-enforced barriers were removed, the exaggerated ideas of difference and status they engendered and maintained began to weaken and fade. This was partly due to the older, more inveterate racists dying off and being replaced by a younger generation not subjected to the constant subtle propaganda on the dangers of racial contamination. But I feel sure that some people felt their own irrational fears subside. Remove the separate fountains and you remove the constant message that one group of people is to be shunned as unclean. You drink from the same fountain, even swim in the same pool, and nothing bad happens. Life goes on.

I think I am pretty well immune to political enthusiasm (being overly cynical or negative some might say); so the election of Senator Obama was not something that elated me from the standpoint of partisan victory, expectation of sweeping positive change, etc. the way it did so many I know. Nonetheless, I have had a feeling of deep satisfaction in Obama’s election from the standpoint of its freeing us from the past, and I have even felt joy in the contemplation and experience of how much this election has meant to so many, especially those who remember from personal experience the days they were deemed unfit even to drink from the same fountain as White people. Now I feel myself being drawn to unrestrained celebration when the actual inauguration takes place.

President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, could not have foreseen that an African-American would ever come to fill the very office he held. Yet Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as President with his hand on the Lincoln Bible. Let the waters of reconciliation flow forth from the rock of our nation’s foundation! Let us all drink from that one fountain!

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