Obama Inauguration brings tears of joy
Grand County, Colorado
I was watching TV reporters interview black Americans attending the Inauguration events. Their tears of joy and their pronouncements of love of America moved me profoundly and brought tears to my own eyes. My immigrant husband asked me why I, a white person, was so emotional. I had to search memories of my childhood of 50 to 70 years ago to explain it to him and to my rational self as well. Here is what I told him.
I was born and raised in eastern Oklahoma in a town that was more Southern than the South. We didn’t see much of two-thirds of our town … who were black. They kept a low profile and the school system was strictly segregated.
I remember “colored people” (as those in polite conversation called them) sat in the back of the bus, had separate toilets, and water fountains. I never knew a colored person had a last name until I was much older. If any came to a white person’s house to pick up laundry, to provide maid services, or for another reason, they came to the back door. It was commonly accepted that blacks were inferior to whites, a rationale for treating them differently.
My household was not typically Southern, however. Dad was from the multi-ethnic plains of eastern Colorado. My mother was from Missouri and she had gone to college in Chicago. If I ever used the N word, my mother threatened to wash my mouth out with soap. Their respect of all people as valued human beings was their greatest gift to me. However, they never rocked the boat of Southern racial customs.
They did not translate their humanity to social action or break the Southern rules.
When I was a toddler, I had a black nanny, Ellen, who read to me and who was warm and cuddly. She taught my mother how to cook and I still have her recipes she wrote out in beautiful handwriting. My mother made sure I shared her respect for Ellen, her level of education and intelligence.
I recall that when I was about 12, and more aware of life around me, I asked my minister why there were no blacks in my church. After all, the Bible talked about God loving all people. My minister told me “they” had their own churches and preferred to go to them. What if they wanted to come to our church? I asked. I do not recall a clear response. It still didn’t seem right.
As I studied American history and the Constitution, I read: “all men were created equal” and the United States offered “liberty and justice for all.” Did that include blacks, too? I took the words of our founding fathers literally and began to see a disconnect between their writings and our application of them.
In my high school years one of the first incidents of integration took place at the University of Oklahoma. Blacks were allowed to attend, though whites insisted that they sat behind glass partitions. I remember thinking that if that were me, I would have felt humiliated.
I followed my mother’s footsteps and went to college in Chicago. No more back of the bus or separate drinking fountains, but attitudes were still in many ways Southern. Just enough black female students were admitted to provide dates for the black football players. I also learned about other kinds of discrimination. My Jewish friends told me there was a quota of 10 percent Jews allowed to study in the university.
Catholics had just been allowed to join some sororities. (The women’s lib movement was years away). I was troubled; my idealistic view of American democracy was now very disillusioned , and I was appalled at the poverty of urban blacks that I saw from the windows of the El as I rode downtown to the Loop. Church, education and civic institutions were not practicing what they preached.
My questions and uneasiness with 1950s racism did not translate into action until after my junior year abroad when I looked back at my home country from an even more critical perspective. I returned to the States in time for the 1960 presidential campaign and the election of John F. Kennedy, and like so many others, I got involved in politics. There was a personal realization that it was not enough to think or feel. One must do, as well. I volunteered for those who supported the integration of public schools, I recruited minority students for private schools, and I raised my children with attitudes of tolerance and inclusiveness.
In truth, I did not support Barack Obama in the presidential campaign because he was black. I supported him in spite of his race, because I feared America was still too racist to elect him. However, his vision for America, his communication skills, and intelligence drew me to him, whether or not I believed he would be a winner.
My tears of joy this past week were from recognition that America has become a place of greater fairness and we as a nation have taken a giant step closer to putting to practice the ideals of our democracy.
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