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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama: what would great-great-grandma think?

My father notes, regarding Obama's election:
I just keep thinking, my dear old aunt Margaret [who was born in 1900, and with whom I, Ben, have felt a deep connection all my life], who lived with me and died in this decade, was raised by a grandmother who had herself, personally, been a slaveowner. In her late dementia, Margaret's chief companion Hope told me one day that at breakfast, sitting in the kitchen that day with Hope and her sister (from Uganda), and the other caretaker (from Jamaica), Margaret remarked, pleasantly, "I just wonder what Grandma would say, if she saw me sitting here eating with the slaves." And she regarded Hope as a daughter, mind you, and tried to give her lunch money every day, and to check on her homework. This was maybe 9 years ago, coming from a woman who worshiped her uncle, the anti-Ku Klux politician, and had been a civil rights progressive all her life, the entire century, in the old South. But the old legacy was embedded in her deep consciousness, in 1999.
Elsewhere in my father's ancestry from that era are other stories of slaveholding. An ancestor, Tom Matthews, was killed by slaves in an uprising. Another ancestor, of Margaret's grandmother's generation, lived in Georgia as a young girl during the Civil War. When Sherman's army came through Georgia, the family's black nurses, who had lived as slaves all their lives and effectively raised my ancestor and her sister, took them to hide away in a free black settlement in the swamps so they wouldn't be raped.

One black pundit commented last night that Obama's victory isn't just a vindication for black Americans, but for everyone--including Obama's mother, who registered voters in the South in the 1960s--who has worked for equality and justice since the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass frequently pointed out that white people had a stake in black freedom, because the fates of all the country's races were so tightly linked, socially, economically, and culturally.

I think my great aunt Margaret would feel a little freer today.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Nov 05, 09:38:00 PM:
I am always shaken out of a vague, passive stupor of assumptions about history when I hear about, say, a white, anti-KKK progressive politician in the old South, like the relative your father mentioned. The Obama victory (and such a decisive one!) has shaken me ever so much more. We are usually so comfortable understanding people's attitudes as an automatic by-product of their time and place--you were a white Southerner in 1900, ergo you were racist and favored subjugation of black people; you are working class, white, and live in a blue state, ergo you could not pull the lever for a black man with a funny Muslim name... And yet, the examples, atypical though they may be, of white Southern progressives living under Jim Crow is a reminder that racism did not simply follow from being born then and there. That there were arguments sounded against the status quo, and people chose to be open to them or to close themselves off. People are a product of culture, sure, but we are not strictly bound by a culture's implied or explicit limitations. Yesterday's election of Obama serves as a visceral, modern-day reminder that the white people of Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania ought not be treated by us smug, progressive New York liberals as a foregone conclusion of backwardness, racism, and close-mindedness. Barack MAJORITY election showed us that open-minded forward thinking might be a lot more normal in America than we give it credit for.