Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Two Thoughts on Obama

1. What a great day for white Americans! The man who is about to break a historic barrier, and could become the first black president, is half white. So much for us to be proud of. Another first for the white community!

Which is tongue in cheek (I'm talking to you, Greenwald) but does reflect my notion of the artificiality of race in America, however authentic the consequences of people's belief in its reality.

Now the serious thought. I've been wondering why l'Affair Wright doesn't make me go ballistic, the way it does some people who generally are in my camp.

For years I lived and worked in a region just north of the Mason Dixon Line, with two historically black colleges and an established black community with powerful churches. The colleges were rapidly degenerating, but they had been, in living memory, in the black Ivy League -- Thurgood Marshall was a graduate of one of them -- and the older professors were worthy of that tradition.

Obama is roughly my age. When he talks about the gap between the old and the young among politically active blacks, I know what he means. I got to cross paths many times with that older generation, while living with the younger in a mostly deracinated social life. One man in particular stands out: A gray-haired chemistry professor whose name I suspect "Reader" remembers (though she may not share my judgment of him). He headed up a community race-based organization and fought his battles there, in the university where he worked, and anywhere he found them. I covered several long lawsuits he brought, some of them hopeless case, some of them necessary ones, but all firmly and equally rooted in his sense of justice. He led, for instance, the fight that overthrew a ward system that deliberately diluted the black vote in the county seat.

I thought he was wrong in many cases and quixotic in others. In retrospect, he was more right than I realized, but I was young. He was firm in his convictions. He did not suffer fools patiently, black or white. But he was patient in explaining himself to those, black or white, who were listening. He used the right word, always. He never gave up. His mere presence commanded enormous respect. I doubt he ever knew my name, but I consider him a personal hero.

The men such as him were occasionally intemperate in the language they used in their crusades. They often seemed obsessed with the last fight, not the next one. Yet I would not have wanted that community without them. They were a necessary irritant.

Others among them I found more congenial. Generally they were not community leaders. In researching the history of that community (including the black history) I got to know the janitor at the historical society. He would take me into his "office" (a glorified and windowless closet) and tell stories and show me his own collection of clippings and artifacts. He was as proud as the professor, but he had a deep human kindness that the activists often lacked. I realized his perception of the community's past was richer and more nuanced than that of the librarians -- or the board of directors. He should have been running that place. Instead, he was sweeping up the plastic cups after the corporate fundraisers in the galleries. I dedicated my first book to him.

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