Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Obama Election

How the West Was Won
To Kill a Mockingbird

Let me begin by admitting that I have been kind of emotionally sappy all my life. So it is no wonder that as I sit here the day after Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, I can’t stop these tears of joy and pride from hitting my keyboard.

I am 57 years old and I have always been proud of who I am – an African American whose father was born in Trinidad and whose mother was the product of the union of a woman whose family descended from slaves and a man who whose family was on this continent before Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.

And I have always loved my country – despite its legacy of slavery; despite the Supreme Court’s 19th century declaration that a black man was three-fifths of a human being; despite its Jim Crow laws that relegated black Americans to second-class citizenship and condoned the murder and lynching of people because of the color of their skin; and despite its shameful treatment of a people who opened their arms to welcome new neighbors to the lands on which they had thrived for centuries.

I recently watched the movie How the West Was Won and despite the fact that the contributions of African Americans were omitted from the film, I found myself crying tears of pride for the determination a 19th century family to carve a niche for itself in a wilderness that would become part of the greatest country on earth. I had seen this film many times before and it has always elicited the same reaction. Harper Lee’s book that became a movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, also produces tears every time I watch it.

These are stories about families overcoming obstacles while doing the right thing, while doing the moral thing. The family in How the West Was Won fought against slavery in the Civil War; stood up for the rights of native Americans against the encroachment of the railroads into their lands; and helped bring law and order to a “wild” and dangerous west. Similarly, the 20th century single-parent family in the Jim Crow America of To Kill a Mockingbird defended a black man against a false charge of raping a white woman; taught its children that civility and compassion should be part of their everyday discourse with others (lessons that were reinforced by the black woman who helped raise those children); and learned that kindness could trump hatred when the pariah down the street saved the lives of those two children from a racist intent on seeking revenge against the man who proved in court (although he lost the case and his client eventually died) that the rape charge was “a bald-faced lie.”

These stories, along with my relationships with many of the white folks who have been an important part of my life (especially my wife), have always given me hope that one day my country – our country – would actually live up to the declarations of our founding fathers and make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream come true.

While their pronouncement that “all men are created equal” might seem hypocritical to some and an outright lie to others, I believe that our founding fathers knew in their heart of hearts that slavery was wrong. But I believe they also knew that they could not force that fact down the throats of many of their fellow white Americans without creating a crisis that could have destroyed their new country in its infancy.

That being said, I can’t believe that Thomas Jefferson thought his children by the slave Sally Hemmings were less than human. “All men are created equal.” That is what Mr. Jefferson wrote in our Declaration of Independence. While he couldn’t make that a political reality then, I believe that he believed – not hoped, but really believed – that one day that statement would become a reality.

The election of Barack Obama showed that the United States of America could overcome itself -- and get over itself. This is not a work of fiction and it is not just a dream. It has become our new reality. For more than two centuries, minorities and women have strove to prove that our founding fathers were not lying about all men – all people – being created equal. While there is still much to do to improve race and gender relations in this country, Hilary Clinton’s historic campaign, John McCain’s powerfully gracious concession speech and the election of Barack Obama prove that our founding fathers were not liars and Dr. King was not just a dreamer. It proved that the United States of America is indeed the greatest nation in the history of the world.

I have never been so proud to be an American.

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