What do I tell my black child if Barack Obama, America’s first black president, loses his bid for re-election? This is a question many parents are asking themselves — especially those who would blame the loss on racism.
Jubilant black parents on the front pages of newspapers, the day after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, said things like, “for the first time” they could “sincerely” say to their children that a black person could realistically aspire to become president of the United States.
The New York Times wrote: “That a new day had dawned was immediately apparent at breakfast on Wednesday at Eagle Academy, a young public school in the spot where the often hard-edged Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville and Ocean Hill intersect: The sixth-grade boys sat in silence over their eggs, biscuits and apple juice.
“They were too busy poring over the transcripts of President-elect Barack Obama’s speech that teachers had handed them as they walked in. Too tired, perhaps, from having been awoken at midnight to hear the news from their tearful mothers. …
“The 30-year-old principal, Rashad Meade, pushed his proteges, asking why they thought … this moment was so important … why their parents had woken them the night before.
“Isaiah Purcell, who is 11, started to say something about the issues, then trailed off. He picked up again, asserting that Mr. Obama’s ascendancy to the White House ‘makes us think that we could accomplish anything when you put your mind to it (emphasis added).’”
Goodness! Pre-Obama, what were these parents and teachers telling these kids about their future? What would the teary-eyed parents have said had Obama lost? Would they have told their children that racism remains a major force in America and Obama’s defeat proves the point? And assuming he loses his bid for re-election, what will this defeat say about “race” in America?
My father, a former Marine, World War II vet, was born to an illiterate single mother in Athens, Ga. An only child, he never met his biological father. He was a 14-year-old teenager in that Jim Crow South when the Great Depression began. Hard, hard knocks.
But as I write in my new book, “Dear Father, Dear Son,” my father taught my brothers and me that the only barrier to success is lack of effort. My Huntsville, Alabama-born mother also taught us that, through education and steady application, goals could be achieved — no matter how lofty.
Yes, even the presidency of the United States.
I write: “Mom made me feel like I could spit lightening and make bullets bounce off my chest. She sat me down on the front porch when I was about 6 years old. She had an illustrated book of all the presidents from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower. We talked about their achievements and disappointments.
“‘Larry,’ she said, tapping the book, ‘if you work hard enough and want it bad enough, someday you can be in this book.’”
My parents told us that no one can make you feel inferior without your permission. In high school, we read a sad, bitter poem about racism in a black literature course:
“While riding through old Baltimore, so small and full of glee,
“I saw a young Baltimorean keep a-lookin’ straight at me.
“Now, he was young and very small, and I was not much bigger
“And so I smiled, but he put out his tongue and called me ‘nigger.’
“I saw the whole of Baltimore from May until September,
“Of all the things that happened there, that’s all that I remember.”
The teacher angrily talked about the permanent damage done to this little boy’s psyche. The permanent stain of racism. The assault on the little boy’s dignity. The boy, said the teacher, will never be the same. By the time the bell sounded, everyone was angry.
When I got home, I read the poem to my mother. She was in the kitchen, cooking a pot of greens. When I finished the last line, she turned, big spoon in hand, and looked me in the eye.
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