Monday, January 19, 2009

From MLK to BHO

We've still got quite a ways to go. Pardon my pessimism, but it seems to me that there are a lot of people who are looking to the inauguration of Barack Obama as the realization in Dr. King's dream, and don't get me wrong, I think it shows we've made great strides, but we're not "there".

A lot of people are talking about the inauguration as though it's this moment in time that is an inflection point between the past and the future, but I don't think it's really so. I think the inauguration is symbolic of the transformation our country has undergone since the days of Dr. King, but it's not as though this day could have come unless we were ready for it, and our readiness as a nation is the real transformation, but it didn't happen suddenly one Tuesday in November, nor will it on a Tuesday in January. It happened slowly and steadily over the course of something like a century and a half.

Some people wonder why it's considered such a big deal, which has a couple of interesting facets to it. On the one hand, there's something almost heartening that a generation should come to pass where people don't see the inauguration of a President not of purely northern European ancestry as a big deal. It shows acceptance, and of a kind that indicates our minds have changed, and gone beyond mere acceptance. On the other hand, the pessimistic one, it may show a kind of ignorance of history. After all, if it's no big deal, why did it take over two hundred years to go from slavery to this? It may be great that we've come as far as we have as a nation, but at the same time, did it need to take so long?

Actually, I think it could have been a little bit sooner. There's a part of me that thinks the national attitude could have managed to elect an African-American President as early as the late '70s, if only there had been the right candidate. If true, this also has (at least) two facets. Maybe it's just easier for me to accept the idea since I was born in the early '70s, and therefore past the most intense turmoil of the civil rights movement, but I don't think the country has suddenly accepted black people; the seeds for the 2008 election results were beginning to sprout towards the end of the '60s. I think on the negative side, it shows some of the reason that mere acceptance is not quite enough for equality. A sufficiently qualified African-American could possibly have been elected in, say, 1980, but there was no such thing yet. Actually, some might argue (and many have) that Obama is not it either, having largely gotten elected on personality rather than an impressive record; after all, he hasn't been in politics very long. The thing is, since African-Americans were kept out of politics for so long, it's hard for them to have a viable candidate since we (rightly) expect our politicians to work their way up from the bottom. White and wealthy George W. Bush, in contrast, is a good example of someone who was never at the bottom. Not that it's his own fault, but there's a certain shame for our society that there really aren't any African-Americans of equivalent status to Bush.

It's unfortunate that we will always have to be performing a balancing act between remembering the tragedies of the past and working to put them behind us. It would be wrong to forget the injustice done--not just to African-Americans, but to various social groups in our history--and yet at the same time, one wonders if we are unable to put the past behind us, how can we let go of bitterness and move into the future? Think about how profound it can be: in some sense, the troubles in the Middle East are the result of a 3,000-year-old case of sibling rivalry. How long will we in America have to keep fighting the civil war? I suppose at least until we're truly the united states.

I sometimes wonder if we'll ever be "there". It seems sometimes like racism in particular, and prejudice in general are simply a part of human nature. Actually, it's pretty natural. When two people meet for the first time, the only thing they have to evaluate the other person is their physical appearance. We like to try to get a handle on other people, so until we get to know them better, most of what we know about them is what color and shape they are. In itself, that's not so bad, so long as we can eventually let go of our preconceived notions and see who we all are on the inside where it counts.


marauder said...

No, I don't think we're there. We've made progress, but there is a lot further to go.

Slavery is a horrible stain on our nation's character, and as you note it is not something that is "past." A nation where an entire race was enslaved for 200 years or more cannot simply shake off that oppression with one Emancipation Proclamation, nor even with a Civil Rights movement 100 years later, nor even with the election of a black president. (And you know, there are efforts to end the Voting Rights Act...)

There is a way to heal the nation, but no one will want to do it. And that is for the dominant culture to humble itself before the culture it has held down, for an entire generation to present history and culture from the viewpoint of the oppressed: to talk about the contributions of blacks to the Revolution and to the Civil War, to discover the music that flourished in the black community long before it spread into the "respectable" white culture, and on and on. In the end, "black history" is a misnomer, as though it were something separate or tacked on to American history. Black history IS American history. Remove the story of slaves, black freemen, and their descendants, and you remove America.

If we were to elevate that to a higher place, and give every person in America a pride in writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Huston, you might see that stain gradually erased.

But not until then.

Brucker said...

You know, I've always thought it would be hard to imagine what the real solution could be, but that sounds like a big step in the right direction.

It also sounds far too rational for nasty Internet bickering. Are you trying to ruin my blog?

(Verification word: "beeledn". Sounds Dutch.)

marauder said...

Your blog was ruined long before I came here.

Mine is "conshoed," as in "You like mighty conshoed this morning, Ma'am."