Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

Thoughts of Water on the Eve of Obama’s Inauguration

Monday, January 19th, 2009

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!

Presidential Sport

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

This is not going to become a habit, I hope, and it is not political commentary per se, just some general advice, drawing on specific examples, to all Presidential candidates about not trying to seem something you’re not. Well, let me back off from that: running for President is mainly about seeming something you’re not. But still, you have to choose a realistic man or woman of the people image for yourself. Otherwise, you may be found out in a way that damages your chances of being elected.

There are just too many reporters, cameras, and, now, bloggers around to think you can keep much secret. Things get found out these days. If you’re going to engage in what some hair-splitting, old-fashioned types may consider “sexual relations” with a young intern, be ready for the embarrassing details to be printed in full in the NY Times and posted on the internet. The public wants to know I guess, though I didn’t. If you didn’t really come under sniper fire in Bosnia on a trip with many witnesses, don’t expect your assertion that you did will go unchallenged. In my mind, the mere running for President requires either courage or ignorance of its inherent danger (see my recent post), so why make up stories?

Today I’m mainly talking about trying to present an image of yourself as a sports fan or recreational athlete when in fact you don’t care about sports or don’t engage in them. We have certainly had some athletic Presidents. Lincoln was reputed to be a powerful wrestler. Teddy Roosevelt was the extreme case of an overachiever in the manly arts. Ike played football, and I first encountered the word “atheist” as a kid when Eisenhower jokingly defined it as someone who doesn’t care who wins the Notre Dame vs. SMU football game. (Don’t worry if you don’t get it.) Jerry Ford played football (too often without a helmet according to LBJ). Washington excelled at tree chopping and dollar tossing in his youth, or so they used to say.

JFK, despite debilitating health problems, was able to project an image of manly fitness because it had been true in his earlier days and exposing Presidential weaknesses wasn’t given such a high priority in his day. FDR obviously wasn’t an athlete, but he didn’t pretend to be, and he managed to appear much less physically handicapped than he actually was, something that would be difficult to achieve today. Speaking of FDR, I’ll bet Senator Obama envies his ability to flaunt his cigarettes in a holder that became iconic. Every era demands new sacrifices.

In recent years at least, it seems that candidates have striven more to give the appearance of being avid sports fans, probably because sports have become more and more important with the expansion of the sports media. Sports nuts are probably a significant segment of the population, if not, strictly speaking, a voting bloc. Nixon was truly interested in sports, I recall. So much for the idea that that’s a reliable indicator of a successful Presidency, but he did get elected twice.

Our current President also seems to follow sports with genuine interest. He owned a major league baseball team. He can throw ceremonial first pitches all the way from the pitcher’s mound to home plate with some authority, a major step up from the weak short tosses from the stands of not so long ago. So why then would John Kerry have tried to go up against the other guy’s strength in an area where he, Kerry, had a weakness? Maybe throwing back a shot of whiskey à la Hillary Clinton recently would have been a better idea; though, against a recovering alcoholic who’d been on the wagon for years, it could have seemed a bit like hitting below the belt.

In any case, Kerry definitely sought to portray himself as a sports fan, including a fan of NASCAR racing, but with results that worked against him I think. Representing Massachusetts in the Senate, Kerry no doubt had been told it’s important to be a big Red Sox fan. But when he started talking about Manny Ortez (probably a running together of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz), it only seemed he was trying to remember lines, not speaking from true interest. And about 99.9% of Red Sox fans were going to see that. Yet he doesn’t seem to learn. He avowed that his favorite Sox player when he was a kid was Eddie Yost, who never played a game for Boston. There was an Eddie Yost, all right, who played for the Washington Senators, so Kerry may have truly remembered hearing the guy’s name. He may even be remembering something about him. Kerry said that the thing he really liked about Yost was that he walked a lot. Not hit homeruns or stole bases, but walked! This was not a normal kid baseball fan he was describing.

Kerry was following in the footsteps of the Senior Senator from Massachusetts with his mangling of ballplayers’ names. Ted Kennedy was somehow prompted to refer to the homerun hitters then challenging Roger Maris’s record as “Sammy Suser and Mike McGwire” (at a time when the names of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were everywhere). Of course, what he really said was Sammy Susa and Mike McGwire. That extra “r” is just something people from Boston add before a following vowel, in this case the “and.” Think of JFK’s “Cubar” if you’re old enough.

In this Presidential season, Mitt Romney tried to recover from his exaggerated tales of being a lifelong hunter by making jokes about mounting gopher head trophies, which I have to admit is kind of funny. But you don’t have to be a hunter to say you don’t want to take hunters’ guns away, so better not overdo it in the first place. Romney spent a lot of money on his campaign, but seems to have come across as a phony to a lot of voters. The hunting fib couldn’t have helped.

Generally speaking, unless you can pull it off, as Hillary did in showing she was “one of the guys” when she downed the shot of whiskey, don’t attempt man-of-the-people feats. I doubt that hers was a spur-of-the-moment decision and it may have been born of desperation, but it could turn out to have been a brilliant move. How many percentage points was that shot worth? She must have practiced that one, but others have jumped in without thorough preparation.

President Jimmy Carter famously collapsed on camera while jogging during his term of office, which did not convey the image of vigor and stamina he was no doubt hoping for. Carter also became a figure of ridicule when he talked of having to beat off with a boat oar the repeated attacks of an aquatic rabbit that kept swimming toward his boat. The “Killer Rabbit” episode certainly has colored my image of him ever since. Maybe it was a rabid rabbit that really was dangerous or a drowning rabbit that should have been rescued instead of bashed, but it just seems ludicrous in the telling. Better to have kept the rabbit story inside the family. Perhaps that unfortunate encounter with the wild kingdom was enough to sink Carter against Reagan, who by the way got his start as a play-by-play baseball radio announcer using fake crowd noise and bat cracks for time-delayed broadcasts based on telegraphed reports coming in to the station.

Then there were the painful-to-look-at pictures of Kerry trying to catch a football as though it were the first one he’d ever had thrown to him, something to be warded off like an attacking hawk at Fenway Park. Whose idea was that? Why football anyway? Well, the Kennedy Presidential clan used to play touch football, so that might have entered into it. And JFK (the original) liked to sail of course, which may explain Kerry’s windsurfing. But windsurfing doesn’t convey mastery the way posing at the tiller of a sailboat does.

If you’ve never engaged in an activity before, better not do it for the first time with press coverage. As a case in point, if you’ve never bowled before in your life, don’t bowl in front of the television cameras the way Obama did. If you bowl a 37, just say you were under 100 unless you’ve foolishly let the press keep score. People might relate to a guy bowling under 100, but 37 is so low that it casts doubt on your basic physical co-ordination or performance under pressure. Most people who have bowled probably won’t remember having bowled a score that low. If you see you’re on your way to a 37, and the press is keeping score, better quit early. You can say it’s that old bullriding injury acting up or something. Is bowling a requirement for being President? No—so don’t act like it is by doing it in public, unless you can bowl at least, say, 150.

I would also recommend that, if you are as weak in an area as your opponent is, be careful how you ridicule him or her. Cheney could pile on Kerry about referring to Lambeau Field as Lambert Field, but Senator Obama’s talking about Hillary out there in the duck blind like “Annie Oakley with her six shooter” didn’t really work. It hinted at ignorance of both duck hunting, where shotguns are preferred, and Annie Oakley, who was famous for her rifle shooting. Associating Hillary Clinton with Annie Oakley in any way probably wasn’t a good idea, as Annie excelled at something usually thought of as a masculine activity, and who knows what might stick in the voter’s mind.

Looking to the fall, consider that John McCain really is a sports fan. This is neither good nor bad as far as I can see, unless taken to extremes. McCain will no doubt reveal some foibles of his own, but his opponent would be well advised not to try to match him in sports acumen or enthusiasm, because exposure as a phony, even in an unimportant area can tip the scales for some people. McCain really did get shot at too.