Black to the Future

A woman in my evening composition class told this story last night.  After leaving the polls for early voting in Nashville yesterday, she happened upon a man she works with.  He asked an interesting question.

“Did you vote right?”

She looked at him a little puzzled.  “Well, I suppose ‘right’ would depend on which side you’re for.”

“What I mean is,” he said with a knowing southern grin, “did you vote black or white?”

As we are approaching the summit of that mountain top Dr. King saw 45 years ago, it must be noted that some Americans remain stuck in a valley of immense ignorance.  For a long time now, we have lived in the delusion that racism was disappearing.  As Barack Obama edges closer to the Oval Office, our baser elements seem to be crawling out of the ooze.

But don’t think for a minute that I would advocate the impossible (and unnecessary) concept of a colorblind election.  This election IS about the economy and the war and education and health care, etc.  But, this election is also about race, and it should be.

The civil war ended 143 years ago and with it the national sin of slavery.  In those 143 years, we have experienced Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, Plessy v. Ferguson, segregation, Brown v. The Board of Education, lunch counters, sit-ins, fire hoses, police dogs, and church bombings, not to mention the death of a thousand cuts that shows up as that subtle, systemic, sinister, subconscious bigotry that insinuates itself into everything from jobs to jokes.  To a sociologist studying cultural change, 143 years is nothing.   We absolutely cannot elect a black man to the most powerful office in our nation in 2008 and not recognize how profound that moment would be.

When I cast my vote a few weeks ago for Barack Obama, I did so because I believe in his plan for America.  I agree with his economic vision, his policy of diplomacy first and war last, his devotion to equality for all Americans, and his recognition that our diseased health care system must undergo surgery.  But I also felt a personal thrill and undeniable swelling of patriotism that I lived to see the day I could vote for an African American for president.

He shouldn’t be president because he’s black.  But it still does mean something that he is.  And regardless of whether he accomplishes that task or not, we can’t put this genie back into the bottle.  Our national racism has once again come up for healing.  And our national prayer should be that we eradicate this cancer once and for all.

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