Election commentary: A milestone, not end of journey
Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 9, 2008
Kenneth L. Hardin
For the Salisbury Post
Four. That’s the number of times in my adult life I have cried. I don’t mean the Susan Lucci/”All My Children” fake tears or the Jesse Jackson “I’m sorry I got caught” redemptive fake election night tears either. I’m talking about the kind of crying where you have to use tissues and the sleeve of your shirt to compensate.
The first time I cried with that intensity was at the birth of my first son nearly 18 years ago. The second time was nearly as long ago at the death of my much respected grandfather. Tears don’t come easily or often for me. Election night and the morning after were slightly different. As CNN announced Barack Obama’s name and “president” in the same sentence, a flood of emotions overtook me. I walked out of the den and retreated to my bedroom alone. That night and to this day, it is hard to describe what I felt. I’m truly conflicted. I sat on the edge of the bed alone, and as the phone started its nearly hour of continuous ringing, I broke down.
I thought back to my paternal grandfather, who endured the indignities of Jim Crow yet remained a strong and admired man. As I sat with head in hands, how I wished he could have been here to witness this day. I fondly recall watching TV with him, and when a person of color was speaking or being recognized, he would beam with pride and exclaim, “Look at that colored fella go!” I thought of my father, who survived Jim Crow “Junior” and raised four strong men in light of those same indignities. As the tears flowed, I thought of my three sons and how they will have to maneuver through James Crow III ó today’s a more subtle and less overt form of racism that exists today. As I moved my sleeve back and forth across my face, I found solace in those Americans who spoke with their vote. Maybe my sons’ indignities will be a bit more miniscule and infrequent? So, I was crying less over the accomplishment and more for the yet to be determined impact.
Early the next day, I made my way through the heart of Salisbury. I came to rest at a stoplight. On the radio, a clip of Dr. King’s final speech the night before that sad day in April boomed loudly. The vibrancy of his words saying how he had “been to the mountaintop” intermingled with announcements from talking heads declaring Obama the winner. That indescribable feeling again shot through me like an electric current. As Dr. King proclaimed how he had seen the “promised land,” I sat there motionless with drenched sleeves. Four.
I am not in the majority who have likened Obama’s accomplishment to the answer for what ails us racially. It is a giant leap toward progress, but I see it as merely the key that opened the door, not the answer. This is where the feeling of conflict I mentioned earlier comes in. Yes, we should celebrate this historical moment, but to still be celebrating firsts and “only’s” reveals how much of a divided and separate nation we remain. It shows how much work still needs to be done on racial progress. How do you measure progress? If you look at the pancake box, Aunt Jemima has lost the handkerchief and is now adorned with pearls and a perm. On the rice box, Uncle Ben now has a nice bowtie and a smart blazer. Do we call it progress because you dress it up and improve aesthetics? It’s still rice and pancake mix. The day after the inauguration, America will still have the same deficiencies regarding race. The day after the election, two white employees at my job sat in a break room and remarked, “It’s not the White House anymore, it’s the n—- house.” So, I apologize if I can’t fully join the happiness bandwagon right now.
Comedian Chris Rock recently satirized the efforts of the NAACP to dissuade use of the N-word. He lampooned the funeral held to bury the word once and for all. In the punch line, he said, “Well, tonight it’s Easter!” My skepticism is born out of witnessing a lot of resurrections of the Jim Crow lineage. As a society, we are still afraid to have real conversations and hold those Jim Crow family members accountable for their actions. This results in superficial relationships and impedes real progress. What remains is a lot of smiling, head nodding and artificial cordiality. A young white man told me that he wished blacks would get over slavery and racism because he didn’t own any and had nothing to do with it. I saw this as akin to telling someone with a debilitating terminal illness to just stretch and walk it off. If anyone remains silent and allows any form of injustice to occur or exist, then that person is equally as guilty.
I had a discussion recently with a childhood friend, now a successful attorney, about the difficulties we faced growing up, dealing with racism and prejudice from both sides of the fence. We discussed how we were raised in structured households where the concept of equality and love for every individual was taught, emphasis was placed on education and discipline in thought, speech and behavior was the norm. We recalled how, in turn, were teased and labeled by our black peers who saw this as a means to assign to you a lesser degree of black cultural authenticity. We acknowledged that professionally, if you asserted yourself and showed unequaled confidence, you were viewed as angry and too black, which stifled your growth and upward mobility. Two days after the election, I listened to a national radio program that cautioned blacks to not show too much excitement at work about the election for fear of professional repercussions. Was this cautionary mandate sent out by Rush Limbaugh back in 2004, for Bush followers? Obama’s election is evidence we have made progress, but with the issues that still plague our society, it is only a beginning, not the end.
I plan to cry again within the next year. I don’t want to waste any of my tears on our societal ills. My oldest son is graduating high school next summer and has decided to study medicine. My fifth round of tears will flow from pride when he walks across the stage and shakes hand with his principal, so I’m saving them for that day.
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Kenneth Hardin lives in Salisbury.