I grew up in this Florida, mostly in Tampa, but for a few years in Lake Wales, a nearby town. This was in the 1950s, when the South was littered with signs saying "White Only" or "Colored Only," over water fountains, bathrooms, and other public places. This was a time when it sometimes seemed that simply having dark skin was a crime, and anyone with light skin could be your judge, jury, and sometimes, executioner. In towns like Kissimmee, if you were black, being on the street after dark in the white area of town could cost you your life, and your executioner would most often be found blameless.
Last night on television, I watched in awe as a reported crowd of 35,000 people stood in Kissimmee, Florida, in the midnight chill of 42 degrees (cold for the Sunshine State) and waited to see and hear Barack Obama speak. There were old, middle-aged and young; black, brown and white; men, women and children, all gathered to hear a mixed-race man speak to them about the future of their country. He was cheered and respected, and I was enthralled. Forty years ago, Barack Obama's parents could not have shared a hotel room in Florida without being arrested. Today, their son stands an excellent chance of being the next President of these United States.
Now, most people don't think of Florida as "the South." Today it is mostly thought of in terms of Miami, DisneyWorld, white-sand beaches, a repository for Cuban and Haitian refugees, and retirees from the North. But when I was growing up there, at least in Central and Northern Florida, the state was as southern in attitude, societal values, accents, and segregation policies as any other southern state. To have witnessed via television the gathering in Kissimmee last night was as miraculous to me as anything I've ever seen. My spirits soared on the wings of Sen. Obama's words and the cheers of the crowd.
This morning, as I was returning from my morning walk, the little girl across the street called out to me, "Obama rocks, doesn't he?" "Yes," I replied, "he does!" "Maybe," she said, "he'll be our first brown President!" "That would be great, Tiana!" I replied to her, my 9-year-old Mexican-American neighbor.
Upon reporting this conversation to Jim, I realized what an exciting idea that must be for this child and her family, and for so many others whose skins aren't white. Despite the conservative Christianity this family practices, they are able to visualize a world where hope and acceptance are more important than labels.