I can’t believe it either: we actually elected a black president. I’m ashamed to realize that I underestimated my fellow citizens, but I think it’s the same old story: the bigoted minority makes the most noise. Bishop Shelby Spong once said, “Religions are like swimming pools, most of the noise comes from the shallow end.” I think politics is the same way.
One example of this is a Christmas dinner I went to years ago at Whitley’s family’s country house. The house is now lived in full time by Whitley’s aunt and uncle, and on Christmas and Thanksgiving, the whole clan is invited for a huge, blow out dinner.
One year I noticed that the wife of one of Whitley’s cousins had clearly had too much to drink, to the point that she was falling asleep at the dinner table on our son’s shoulder. Then I realized why: her reprobate father was visiting from Alabama, trying to decide whether which of his children to move in with. His stubbornness and unwillingness to change was illustrated by the fact that he had to drag an oxygen tank around with him because he had emphysema, but he was STILL SMOKING. Like many Southerners of his generation, he called blacks “monkeys.”
Whitley’s uncle has been through many of these family gatherings and I have the sneaking suspicion that they are starting to bore him, which is why I always seem to end up seated next to someone with whom I am sure to disagree. Since I can’t keep my big mouth shut, he knows the sparks will soon fly, which he finds quite entertaining. This time I was seated across from the father and his (by now) very inebriated daughter.
This was shortly after the first Bush election in 2000, and of course the dad couldn’t resist bringing up politics. He said, “I didn’t vote Democratic like all those monkeys did.” Most of the people at the table seemed baffled by his remark, but I knew darn well what he meant and snapped back, “Well, I voted Democratic and I haven’t brachiated yet.” I was referring to the term for the way monkeys move through the tree tops, arm over arm. I was familiar with this term because when Andrew was a kid, one of his friends had a “brachiating ladder” in her bedroom.
But when I looked around the table, I realized that NOBODY ELSE knew what the word meant and most of them probably thought it meant “fart,” so I quickly amended my statement with, “And that DOESN’T mean what it sounds like!” My face was red, but that was nothing compared to Whitley’s uncle: when I glanced down at the end of the table, I saw that he was laughing so hard he had nearly fallen off his chair. I had livened up the dull dinner for him once again.
I can hardly imagine what black people must feel about this election and can only say that it means a lot to us whites too, especially those of us who worked in the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. I was living in the Northeast at the time, so all I was able to do was join protest marches. I remember a black friend I had when I was a young working girl in Ann Arbor, who was getting her PhD in education. She told me about taking a trip down South to visit her family, where there were still segregated rest rooms and drinking fountains for “coloreds only.” She was so used to living up North that she didn’t know what to do. She said to me, “I couldn’t figure out if I was really supposed to USE those things!”
Whitley, whom I hadn’t yet met, was actually living in a segregated city, where he helped integrate local movie theaters and soda fountains by sitting in the black section with his friends. He remembers his black “mammy” (whom he adored) seating him next to the line in front of the bus which separated the white from the black section while she sat on the other in the back, so they could hold hands across the line.
Holding hands across the line of separation–that’s a nice metaphor for what our country needs to do now.
By the way, I got even with that nasty old bigot and helped Whitley’s cousin at the same time: I told her, “Take him to meet the part of our family that lives in the country, and he’ll decide to live elsewhere, pronto!” These cousins are what you might call “hippies”–they live on a wildlife refuge which they created themselves and like to sing folk songs and play the guitar. It worked!
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