“It’s been a long time coming,” said the president-elect on the big screen. From the back of the packed room at Bobby G’s Pizzeria, an earnest youthful voice: “Twenty months!”
From a fortyish man at our table of folks ranging from older to seriously old (my 94-year-old mother), “More like 20 years!”
Twenty years? It’s been 50 years of my own life alone that we’ve been waiting for a person of African descent to take his rightful place among the citizenry of the United States.
Most of the crowd at Bobby G’s watching the election result on the big sports bar TV screen looked like graduate students, judging by the sprinkling of wedding rings and babies among them. That would put them in their mid-twenties, none of them even born when we first started picketing Woolworth’s in the north in 1960 to support the freedom riders in the south, none of them even in the world when my cousin Elsa crossed the bridge at Selma with Martin Luther King in 1965.
And in the lives of those that went before us, more than a hundred years had passed before that since emancipation. Slavery time added more hundreds of years of waiting...it’s been a long time coming, indeed.
At our old folks’ table last night we had three grandparents and two great-grandparents, as well as two more who were hoping to be grandparents in due time. We were all well aware that we’d seen a full turn of the wheel of time in our lifetimes, and we were happy and proud to have been there when it happened.
More than once, the talk turned to Madelyn Dunham, Barack Obama’s grandmother who raised him from the age of 10. These days it’s sometimes hard to remember what agonizing hopes and fears she must have had in 1961 when she learned that she would be the grandmother of a mixed-race child.
In 1961 a woman of my acquaintance in Michigan gave birth to a mixed-race baby, and she was denounced and banished by her family in Hamtramck, Detroit’s Polish enclave. She suffered two years of depression so severe that she couldn’t leave her apartment, though she kept the records for the local civil rights group the whole time, communicating with organizers by passing papers through a crack in her door. Then she pulled herself together and raised a fine son who eventually graduated from Morehouse, but it was not an easy path, with racism rampant everywhere in those days.
Among our friends in the 1960s who had what were then called “mixed marriages,” some chose not to have kids because they were afraid they’d be stigmatized. Others were estranged from their families of origin, raising their children with no contact with grandparents. The active, involved, enthusiastic grandparent was rare, and usually on the African side of the union.
The opprobrium against “mixed marriage” even extended to religious mixes, and even to mixed ethnicity in the Midwest’s tribal cities. We had friends who had to leave Cleveland when they got married because she was Irish and he was Slovak, and their families were furious, even though they were both Catholics. Hawai’i at that time was a lot more rational, but the couple from Kansas must still have been worried about the future of their African-American grandson.
Nowadays it’s the rare parent in my circle of friends who doesn’t have at least one child or grandchild who’s somehow “mixed”—racially, ethnically, nationally or all of the above, and often enough with same-gender parents too. Even though things are much, much better than they used to be, we still can’t help worrying that somehow our beloved offspring will be mistreated in some way because of lingering prejudices. Some of us might have hoped that one of our descendants would be the first African-American president, but we’re happy to cede that honor to Madelyn Dunham’s grandson.
We were everywhere in the time leading up to the election, just to make sure the results were right. My Chicago friend whose grandchildren’s father came from Mexico worked in Michigan and Wisconsin, and takes full credit for bringing those two states in line. A friend in Richmond, whose grandchildren’s other grandparents came from Korea, worked hard to turn Virginia over.
My friend Claudine made the ultimate contribution to the cause: her French-African son, a newly-minted American citizen who cast his first vote for Barack Obama by absentee, since he’s visiting Maman in Paris this week. They tried to go to the American celebration at a famous Paris bar, but the crowd was so huge they couldn’t even get into the street, let alone into the bar, so they called me instead.
I got a celebratory cell phone call early this morning from a Berkeley African-American friend who’d gone back to Ohio to make sure that everyone there behaved themselves—her own granddaughter is in Japan with her American father and Japanese mother. She said she was standing on a bridge which commemorates Harriet Tubman’s route on the Underground Railway. My children’s great-great-grandmother, an Ohio Quaker described in her obituary as a “Lady Abolitionist and Classical Scholar,” took part in that campaign too.
Harriet Tubman was often called the Moses of her people. Like the original Moses, Madelyn Dunham lived long enough to see the Promised Land from afar, though not quite long enough to enter it. Barack Obama’s presidency, in and of itself, will not put an end to racism or other forms of prejudice, but it’s a major signpost on the road to that Promised Land, which we hope will be reached, if not in our lifetime, at least in the lives of our grandchildren. And when it finally happens, Madelyn Dunham’s name should be inscribed in big gold letters on the commemorative plaque as one of those who made the journey possible.
As for me, I sympathized with Michele Obama when she said she was finally proud to be an American, even though later she had to soft-pedal her remarks. Our house came with a big American flag and a bracket to hang it from, which we’ve never used in the 35 years we’ve lived here. We hung our flag out yesterday, and it’s up again today. We might not be at the Promised Land yet, but we’re getting close.