Saturday, February 27, 2010

In Remembrance

William Faulkner wrote "[t]he past is never dead. It's not even past." When I saw this article in the Daily Press this week, I could not help but think of that.

Sometimes, it is hard to believe that less than a decade before I was born, Jim Crow laws were in full effect. And it is also hard to believe how some people are to act like the era of Jim Crow ended like a century ago. Growing up in the Hampton Roads area when I did, I never really considered the things that my family experienced during the mid-20th century.

I think that much of the tension that exists in terms of race relations within the nation stems directly from that Faulkner quotation. One group remembers vividly what happened, and wants continual acknowledgment of that past. Another group also remembers vividly what happened, and wants to avoid that continual acknowledgment, for whatever reason(s).

That we, as a nation, have come so far in terms of race relations within my lifetime is incredible and commendable. But to those who think that we've done all that we needed to do, I have a winning lottery ticket that I would like to sell to you. Being able to look back on the past, as was done in that Daily Press article, is important, because it is a reminder that we should never forget where we were just a few decades ago.

We've done well. Let's keep that excellence trajectory going, and we can show the world exactly how wonderful and dynamic the American experiment really is.


Scott said...

During one of the Democratic Primary debates in 2008, Barack Obama was asked what he thought about the fact that some black folks think of Bill Clinton as, in Toni Morrison's term-- "America's first black President."

Obama's answer was beautiful.

In part, he said-- "I'm always impressed by young men and women who grew up in the South, like Bill Clinton and [turning to John Edwards] and you John, when segregation was still taking place, when the transformations that we now see had not yet begun, and to see that transformation in their own lives."

It's no doubt true that a fair amount of the South still clings to racist beliefs. But I also believe that there is that generation of white Southern men and women Obama recognized who, because of where they grew up, are far more aware of racism and whose commitment to fighting it is more visceral and emotional than that of northern white liberals for whom the subject is more academic than a part of their own heritage.

I think of white guys like Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Their policy positions on racial issues were no more progressive than most northern liberals of the time, but somehow when they spoke of race you could sense that the issue was more personal to them, that our history of racism was more shameful to them.

(At the end of his answer about Clinton, Obama couldn't resist a comedy tag, saying that he'd need to "investigate Bill Clinton's dancing ability...a few other things...before I can accurately judge him to be a brother.")

The guy really has the touch.

hscfree said...

I think that the difference rests in the fact that white southerners have deeper relationships with black folks than any other demographic of whites in the country, like whites in the southwest have deeper relationships with latinos and Native Americans than many of the rest of us. In the north, there weren't a great deal of black folks until the Great Migration of the 20th century, and then they were forced into segregated communities. Out west, the black-white dynamic was different still, and there you had to add latinos and Asians.
In my mind, white and black southerners have centuries of tortured relationships, personal, work, familial, cultural. It's like family, and it's complicated. But there was always a relationship of some sort. That's why Johnson, Carter and Clinton had palpably different understandings of black folks than Kennedy, Eisenhower, Nixon and the Bushes.

Margot Lee Shetterly said...

Great timing for this post...there's an excellent article in the NY Times magazine entitled "Race in the South in the Age of Obama". It's superb and illustrates both how much the south has changed in the last 50 years, as well as how it has not. Well worth a read.

hscfree said...

@Margot: I just finished the NYTimes mag piece. Incredible. The author really shows that strange thought process that some whites go through with black folks. Individual black people that they get to know are fine, but the collective is totally unwelcome. The unknown black person is totally unwelcome.

I thought it was a profound statement that the ritual of hanging a portrait of the POTUS in the public building down there ended when Obama took office. And I thought, as hated as Bill Clinton was in AL, they still put his picture up. Even if they cursed it daily, Clinton was still respected as POTUS. Obama, in their eyes, will likely never garner that respect.

Margot Lee Shetterly said...

@Free you said it very well: it's like family, and it's complicated. Most non-Southerners have a hard time getting a grip on the contradictions.