Kathleen Parker: Shifting the burden of our racial history

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 7, 2008

‘Fess up. You wept. OK, I’ll go first. Tears came twice. First, when John McCain hushed his booing crowd to acknowledge the significance of this nation’s electing an African-American to the presidency. Second, when Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech:
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Amen, brother.
This may say more about my friends than about Obama, but I haven’t spoken to anyone who didn’t become emotional. (Please don’t write to tell me you were unmoved. I think you’ve already been in touch.)
Owing to my pale pigmentation and heritage, perhaps I am not able to fully understand the impact that Obama’s election has had on African-Americans.
But like many other Americans, especially Southerners, my life is inextricably intertwined with the African-American experience. It isn’t just a bit of thread or texture in life’s tapestry, but is central to my emotional and psychological constitution.
Although a child during the civil rights era, I remember the protests, the sit-ins, the march from Selma. I remember the day Martin Luther King was shot ó and the following morning at school when all the black students stormed out of class, prompting my nervous English teacher to send for smelling salts.
Most important to me personally, I remember Dorothy, the woman who cared for me after my mother’s death, and her two much-older children, Ronnie and Sylvia, who were an intimate part of my very young life.
I eventually learned that Dorothy was black, but to me, she was simply “Dot,” the first person I was consciously aware of loving and the only mother I knew. My own was gone before I was able to discern that a mother is an entity separate from one’s self.
Dorothy was in fact part white. Her grandfather was a wealthy white tobacco czar in North Florida (no known details on that bit of history).
Before becoming the center of my universe, she had aspired to be a singer and had performed in a famous Harlem nightclub. Her voice had that smoky sound that calls up cigarettes, sultry nights and stolen glances.
We passed our days mostly in her neighborhood ó the “colored part of town.” Dorothy’s mother had a little grocery store with a hardwood floor, a squeaky screen door and a countertop featuring gallon jars filled with Bazooka bubble gum, pickled eggs and hard candy.
I was usually perched on that counter, daily treated to an ice-cream sandwich, and otherwise the center of much fawning attention. I assumed that all those customers who stopped by to linger had come to see me. They certainly gave me no reason to think otherwise.
Then one day, I learned about race.
Dorothy and I were walking hand-in-hand down Main Street when we passed the Ritz Theater. I asked if we could go to the movies and she said no. Why? Because she would have to sit in the balcony and I would have to sit downstairs alone.
I was only 4, but old enough to recognize foolishness and injustice.
How could that be? What reason? Nothing made sense as she tried to explain that the color of her skin was fraught with meaning. The illogic of her assertions, painfully if matter-of-factly rendered, was stunning even to a knee-high girl.
It made me angry.
Perhaps I would not have felt the wrongness of racial discrimination had it not affected me so directly. And, obviously, racism has done far worse than hurt feelings, or inconvenience a child of privilege. The shame of our racial history is a burden not easily lifted, but Obama’s election has eased the weight considerably.
During the next four years, we will differ with our new president on policies and appointments, but we can all agree on the momentousness of this transaction. There’s something different in the air.
The day after the election, an African-American woman and I were marveling about events and trying to put our finger on what had changed.
That thing. The little speck of difference that kept us imperceptibly apart had been dissolved in a lovely instant of national consensus that race no longer matters.
I wish my Dot had lived to see it.
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Kathleen Parker is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.