Thursday, October 30, 2008

The way we were/The way we are/The way we can be

Kissimmee (pronounced Kuh-SIM-me; if you pronounce it wrong, the ghosts of ancient Indians will rise up and smack you!), Florida is a smallish town in Central Florida, located near DisneyWorld. When I was a small child, the population was a few thousand and the area was mostly cattle ranches and poor folks. African-Americans of the time were often victims of violence, frequently for the "crime" of being "uppity" or talking back to white people.

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.


  1. I read that people seemed focused on Obama being the first president of African-American descent, but he supposedly will also be the first president of Scottish descent. True? I don't know. I do know that for the first time in over 25 years, since my first time voting, that I will be voting FOR a person instead of just AGAINST someone.

  2. Having lived in Illinois until I was 13 and now in Wisconsin, the blatant racism wasn't apparant when I was growing up. My parents taught us that all are to be treated equally. However, my paternal grandfather often used the "n" word to refer to blacks or Degos for Italians (we lived in an area with a high Italian population. When the twinkle Christmas lights first sold I thought they were Dego lights since that is what my grandfather called them. My father finally had a talk with my grandfather and asked him to not use ethnic/racial slurs in front of the grandchildren. I don't know if my grandfather was necessarily a racist but a product of his generation. When I told my son recently that his greatgrandfather - whom he never knew - used the "n" word, my son was aghast.

    I hold my breath in hope that we can elect a superb man as President and that electing a black man may finally mean we've overcome some prejudices.

    While I believe that voting for "a man who is black is as ridiculous as voting against a man because he is black" I have to admit to not even seeing Obama's color and think many, because of the times, no longer view his race. Thank goodness!

  3. This was a very moving post, I got chill bumps and glass eyed just reading it. Thanks.

  4. You have expressed so clearly what it was like in those early days so well. I lived through those times of segregation in Arkansas and things have improved a little bit there, but there is still a long way to go.

  5. So, conservative Christianity embraces racism? Unless one strives to overcome it, of course. I'm sorry, but that's what I read in the tail end of your post. Being a conservative Christian myself, I would vehemently disagree with that.

    Now granted, I did not experience segregation first-hand, and for that I am grateful. I am also happy for the concept that an African-American can rather easily ascend to the highest office in the land. I do truly realize how much history this country has overcome, and for that I am thankful even as I watchfully disagree with many aspects of Democratic policies.

    But as labels fall and global integration continues, let's please make sure that ALL labels fall away equally. Certainly we are all, collectively and individually, works in progress where that is concerned. But progress we must, continually.