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Sunday, July 22, 2018

As racial history fades to black

Do young people understand the enormity of Obama’s inauguration?

Published: January 20, 2009 2:05:05 am

I realised I was probably the oldest partier in the club when the deejay yelled,“If you’re over 25,put your hands up,” then uncorked a string of “oldies” from the 1990s. I was at Ibiza,a popular Washington nightspot,on Saturday night,celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama at a party sponsored by the Hip Hop Caucus.”O-BA-MA! I-BI-ZA!” the deejay shouted over the din. I heard someone call for a security guard. A rowdy drunk was pushing his way to the front of the coat-check line. Behind me,a young woman in a miniskirt and boots was vomiting into a trash can.

Was this really about Obama or just a spirited celebration — a chance to dance and drink and maybe rub shoulders with Mary J. Blige? I left early and climbed into a cab with two middle-aged white guys from Alabama. We joked about the ringing in our ears and the youngsters’ joie de vivre. Then we talked about Obama.

Clarke Rountree told me that he’d felt a little nervous during the campaign when he put an OBAMA sign in his yard. A professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville — and author of a book on the 1954 school desegregation case,Brown v. Board of Education — Rountree wondered how his Huntsville neighbors would react.

It turned out to be a bonding force. He met a black neighbor — “seven years and we’d never even had a conversation.” More OBAMA signs sprouted on the block. And,like me,he held his breath on election night — not sure whether to believe the polls,to trust the country to deliver on its promise.

As we laughed and shared stories,I realized that I,a middle-aged black woman,might have more in common with this 50-year-old white southerner than I do with those young black folks I left dancing and chanting Obama’s name.

The streets in Washington have been filled this weekend with families. Parents with texting-teens dawdling behind them,toddlers perched on their shoulders,and grade-schoolers wearing Obama pins and hitting them up for money for — cups and caps and flags and posters.

But while the kids might enjoy the commotion,there’s no way they can fully grasp the historic enormity of it all. They might say the right words,but they are blase in a way their elders can never be. And we baby boomers — raised to believe in possibility — might celebrate with a sense of pride,but it is no match to the awe our elders feel.

On Saturday night I heard a telling story from a woman who began her career as a secretary and is now a regional vice president at one of the nation’s most successful retail companies. She and other high-ranking black execs were flown to the inauguration on a corporate jet. One of them,a senior VP and tax attorney,almost backed out of the trip because she wanted to be with her elderly mother,who was undergoing surgery this weekend. The older woman’s legs would be amputated. Her mother insisted that she get on the plane. “After I told all the doctors and nurses my daughter was going to the inauguration,you’d better not show up here and make me look bad,” she said. “They cut off legs every day. But how often do they swear in a black man as president of the United States?”

Maybe you have to have lived through pain to appreciate what is about to happen. Maybe it’s as much about age as race; that barriers are disappearing,like a dying generation’s fading memories.

That’s the message I took from the sermon at Shiloh Baptist Church,a local institution founded by former slaves. The speaker was civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis. Lewis shared his walk through a history of poll taxes and police dogs. He recalled the pain felt by “black lawyers and doctors and teachers,told they could not read or write well enough to vote,” and his own humiliation at 16,denied a library card in a tiny Alabama town by a librarian who told him “the library is for whites,not coloured.”

Seven years later,at 23,Lewis was one of the keynote speakers at the March on Washington,where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. “And if someone had told me I would be coming back here 45 years later to see an African American sworn in as president of the United States of America … ,” Lewis paused. Cheers from the congregation made finishing the sentence unnecessary. I turned to the young stranger applauding politely next to me. How,I wondered,did this moment resonate with him?

He understands,Christopher Pitts told me. His mother is an educator,his father a lawyer. They preached civil rights every day,he said,laughing. He graduated from the University of Michigan and now,at 24,works with the Children’s Defense Fund,teaching low-income children literacy skills.

Obama’s election “is a great event,” he said. “But people my age aren’t crying about it. To my mother,it’s a miraculous thing. But I could see that this could happen. My parents always talked to me about opportunities,that with education and preparation,I could be anything.” I recalled my own childhood in Cleveland,when my mother — raised with “whites only” signs in Alabama — took me to see King speak. We crowded around him at a park,listening to him declare,“The Negro is just as good as anybody!”

When he finished and reached out to the crowd,my mother shoved me forward to shake his hand. I looked back to see tears running down her cheeks.

I now think of my three daughters,growing up amid Southern California’s dazzling diversity,in a world that just might judge them on the content of their character,if this election’s message is to be believed.

I’m not worried anymore about whether the younger generation gets it,whether they understand the significance and are celebrating appropriately. I just hope they understand why on Tuesday,I’ll be crying,while they are dancing in the streets.

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