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Obama: Reminiscences of a 13-Year-Old Boy

The Democratic Convention opens tomorrow, and on Thursday Sen. Barack Obama will become the nominee for President of the United States.

I’ve already reserved my front-row seat in front of the TV at my friends’ house. We will watch history being made. For many it will be an occasion of national rejoicing.

A half-Black, half-White senator from Illinois, who has bookended his campaign with appearances in Springfield, will have an entire political party behind him as he seeks to take the White House from Darth Vader and his puppetboy.

Oh, if only Martin and Thurgood, Lyndon and Hubert, Jack and Bobby, Shirley and Barbara, Ev and Charlie were here to see this moment!

If only Barry were here; I think he’d appreciate it. If Margaret Chase* could see this, I think she’d wear a fresh red rose.

For me this all started 44 years ago, when I became aware of pervasive and violent racism in the South and the North. I’d just turned 13, and every night the TV news was full of civil rights protests, water cannons, shots fired, cops on horses, old ladies beaten, houses and churches bombed, children bleeding just because they tried to go to school.

They were kids my age; they had a right to go to school.

None of this made any sense compared to the textbooks I read extolling the virtues of American democracy.

I wasn’t getting beaten up for going to school; why were these kids? It did not make sense, it didn’t then and it doesn’t now. My skin is lighter than theirs, true, but I bleed red and so did they.

Children! Why would adults beat on children?

Those TV images formed my politics and determined much of the course of my life. In later years they made me a Gay activist, but that’s another post.

What’s funny to me in 2008, or ironic anyway, is that 44 years ago I lived two doors down from where I live right now. My mother and I blew this town in 1968 never to return; but by a strange twist of fate here I am, same street, same builder.

I remember the 13-year-old I once was. I remember that my bedroom then was decorated with every political poster, banner, bumper sticker and photograph of Lyndon Johnson I could get my hands on. My parents, lifelong Republicans, figured I must have gone crazy like teenagers always do.

I became a Democrat that year, and still am one. Civil rights fever, pro and con, swept the country. It was the only thing people talked about, the biggest thing they avoided talking about.

Lyndon Johnson, with help from Martin and Hubert and Malcolm and Thurgood and even ol’ Ev, got the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. It was completely the right thing to do. It meant fewer Black kids got their brains beat in, and fewer old Grandmas got their legs broken by billy clubs. There stopped being quite so many house bombings and church bombings and car bombings.

President Johnson won the election that November with the biggest landslide in history. America turned a corner.

Since then there’s been a lot of backsliding. Black kids no longer fight to get into school, they fight to stay out of it. White racism is less visible and more insidious. So-called “conservatives” gave up on race as an effective motivating fear and bulls-eyed Gay people instead.

Now, in just a few months, we will see whether America is ready to turn another corner by electing Sen. Obama.

Sunday’s New York Times has a fairly predictable and predictably fair article, “Blacks Debate Civil Rights Risk in Obama’s Rise.” Several members of the African-American intelligentsia see dangers ahead; Obama may not by himself “heal the nation’s racial divide,” in the current and overused phrase, and may actually be prevented from taking steps that might benefit poor Black folk.

This seems to be the work of professional worrywarts. If we elect a so-called Black (actually mixed-race) President, that by itself is a game-changer.

How the game will go from there no one knows, including the speculators in The Times. But it changes the game, the competition for power in the USA. For the first time in my life it will mean anyone can get elected—including Hillary Clinton, or any other female with more discipline, less baggage and a faithful husband.

Sen. Obama is not the Great White Hope or Great Black Hope or even Great American Hope. He is a man. He has flaws. He will compromise. He’ll make mistakes. He’ll be forced to change course. He’ll screw up half the things he touches—which is a lot fewer screwups than we’ve had for the past eight years.

His nomination will force us all to decide: do we want the kind of democracy our social studies textbooks said we had, but didn’t have, back in 1964? Is this a nation of fairness, with liberty and justice for all?

Are we the land of the free and the home of the brave—or the land of big corporations and the home of the fearful?

Here in my hometown, the reports and anecdotes are not so good. A friend’s daughter heard Obama is a Muslim. Another friend’s mother-in-law says that if Obama wins, “the Blacks will take over.” (Listen, honey, they can’t screw it up any worse than the Whites have.)

Mostly what I sense is that my neighbors are afraid to take a chance, afraid to turn the corner. I think they actually want to, but they’re busy eying whether their neighbors are turning the corner with them. I think they’d love to embrace the New America, but they need help and encouragement and leadership.

Most of that will have to come from the candidate; but a little of it has to come from me. He doesn’t live here; I do.

I was too young in 1964 to sit in at Woolworth’s lunch counter. I was too little to register people to vote. I needed my parents’ permission to go to the movies, much less to Selma. I missed all the action, but I followed it on TV every night.

The opportunity comes only once in a lifetime. This is our moment; this is our time. Either we take back America and live the dream—of those social studies texts, of that Man from Springfield, of that Orator and Organizer on the Mall—or we lose it for another 40 years.

When I watch Obama’s acceptance speech on Thursday at Invesco Field in front of 75,000, I’ll be thinking of a 13-year-old Gayboy two doors down; of kids and old ladies on the Pettus Bridge; of gang-bangers and addicts in Gary and East Chicago; of migrant workers in tomato fields and exploited children in Postville, Iowa; and of soldiers in Baghdad and Kabul, fighting like hell but wanting to come home.

No one knows what will happen in November, but I pray that Americans get permission to stop voting their fears and start voting their hopes. We need Change We Can Believe In, the optimism of Yes We Can.++

* People mentioned in this article: Martin Luther King Jr.; Thurgood Marshall; Lyndon Johnson; Hubert Humphrey; John F. Kennedy; Robert F. Kennedy; Shirley Chisholm; Barbara Jordan; Everett Dirksen; Charles A. Halleck; Barry Goldwater; Margaret Chase Smith; Malcolm X.

7 Responses

  1. Martin and Thurgood, Lyndon and Hubert, Jack and Bobby, Shirley and Barbara, Ev and Charlie, Barry and Margaret and of course Malcolm are all there on the podium with Barack, we may not see them but they are there.

  2. Here in my hometown, the reports and anecdotes are not so good. A friend’s daughter heard Obama is a Muslim. Another friend’s mother-in-law says that if Obama wins, “the Blacks will take over.” (Listen, honey, they can’t screw it up any worse than the Whites have.)…Josh

    Thanks Josh,

    Yes, it’s most always been driven by fear and hate…it’s just that for some the “it” hasn’t changed much…add to that the big LGBT “it” fear and then you’ve got the only recipe that might bring out the vote…it’s the Republican parties version of a Cattleprod…I think it’s running out of juice…how much juice is left to the terrorize the right, I really don’t know….what I see, almost as never before, is HOPE and GOOD HEALTH being revealed before us as Americans…no longer are many willing to simply be blinded by fear and act out because of fear…enlightenment reduces fear…of course, TRUST in God reduces fear but fear/hate mongering preached from the pulpit negates Love…Love for one another, actually it won’t matter much who the “other” is…we need love/embrace everyones right to be…we’re climbing over the wall of ignorance and letting the “Sun Shine In”…now, that song is from the 60’s+ shortly after my first vision of HOPE appeared my last year of High School, got elected, was assinated and faded from view but not our hearts…no, love, truth and hope can’t be rubbed out….not be Lee Harvey Oswald or George W. Bush and his accomplices.


  3. As I made my transition from Republican by inheritance to Democrat by choice in 1964, I followed the campaign of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president by a major party. She was a liberal Republican, a breed that has since gone extinct (former Sen. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island was the last one). She didn’t have any hope of winning, but just like Sen. Clinton she took her campaign all the way to the convention and made her stand. I was proud of her because she made people realize a woman will be elected president someday, so I wrote her a letter to encourage her. She wrote me back; I still have it. They didn’t have machines to sign letters back then; she signed it herself.

    She had a trademark look, as a lot of politicians used to, like the guy who stands out (Paul Simon, Arn Bortz) by wearing a bow tie: she always wore a rose on her lapel. I’m not surprised no one got my remark about it above; I may be the last person in American who remembers Margaret Chase Smith.

    Then again, I don’t think so. As Peter said, her spirit will be on that podium Thursday night with Barack Obama.

    The euphoria is starting; I hope he gives one hell of a speech, knocks the ball right out of the park.

    Then let the work begin: hope, not fear; change, not oligarchy. I bet most Americans are secretly hoping he wins, no matter what they say. We’ve got to end the racist curse so we can fight with each other like family again.

  4. I may be the last person in American who remembers Margaret Chase Smith. ” Josh

    I remember her too…I had no particular feeling for her other than I thought she was very attractive and I loved the “rose” part…sort of the Loretta Young of the Senate…”good evening friends” as she whirled through the door.

    My parents were Republicans too….I came home from Primary School (I think Second Grade) with a “Stevenson” button on…my parents said “oh you’re a Democrat”…no more was said and I remained a Democrat always…years later my Mom whispered to me that she voted for Kennedy but “don’t tell anyone.” Life in the 50’s/60’s…I remember that being a Roman “Catholic” not as in Episcopalian, wasn’t a good thing to be and thought to be sort of “lower class, different and bad”…once I mentioned I might like to become one and BOTH my parents quickly reacted and suggested I “wait until I was older to decide”…apparently a different kind of decision than becoming a Democrat in the Second Grade…clearly we weren’t going to allow that ghastily looking Pope Pius to darken our door.

    Go figure.

  5. Well, he was ghastly looking! Especially with that beehive crown on his head, he looked ready to keel over any minute just from the weight of it.

    Plus he was foreign and didn’t speak English like a regular person, just that old dead language no one could understand.

    I suspect some part of his public relations problem came from those old, blurry, B&W TVs we were watching—a monster from Tales from the Crypt or somethin’. You know what frights little boys can conjure up to scare and entertain themselves and laugh.

    I bet there’s a little kid somewhere looking right now at the Archbishop of Canterbury and saying, “My God, it’s the Invasion of the Eyebrow Man!” Or is that Robert Duncan?

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