Wednesday, August 27, 2008

To Denver, by way of Pine Bluff

My cell phone buzzed near the end of the work day, my mother was crying on the other end and I immediately got worried.

See, in 30 years, I've probably seen my mother tear up about a dozen times - usually after a relative passed or some serious, life-altering turmoil had unfolded at the homestead. My mother rarely resorts to tears in times of crisis, thus all sorts of alarms were set off by the sound of her sobbing.

Then it all made sense: I had missed the historic nomination of Barack Obama because I had been otherwise occupied. My mother, in her way, wanted to talk about how we got here. I listened to her, something I don't do nearly enough.

It's hard for me, a child who has known only integrated schools and front-door service, to imagine the America that my parents were born into. My father is from Hot Springs, Ark., and my mother originally hails from West Monroe, La., and was raised in Pine Bluff, Ark., which were all towns once firmly beholden to the rules - or, more accurately, the absence thereof - of Jim Crow.

My mother has told me of crosses burning in the yards of her neighbors. My father remembers, as a child, being chased into the woods by a group of surly teenage rednecks. Both of them recall their parents and uncles and aunts bowing their heads, minding their step and hoping to avoid a racist on the wrong day. The consequence of brown skin and bad timing could sometimes mean swift, inexplicable cruelty.

Imagine a world with no recourse or protection from the law. Cemeteries were full of people of color with talent, a mind for change and rightfully held grievances. Considering that sort of history, my family's expectations about America's capacity for change was understandably low.

Fast forward to Wednesday. Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president, a development that no reasonable black person who endured such a history could have ever imagined. My mother was overcome.

"Never in my life could I have ever expected this," said my mother over the phone, still choked up. "Not even in your life," my father said later that night.

Understand, I didn't do anything to inherit the America I live in today. By mere blessing and circumstance, I was born after decades of struggle and 14 years after the Civil Rights Act. The hard work was done by people like my parents; my uncles who fought in Vietnam; my aunts who were the first to attend integrated schools; and my grandfather who raised 12 children with a third-grade education and a laborer's salary. "I wish he was alive to see this," my mother said.

We're not naive: Barack still must win in November to complete their dream. At this point, anything less might feel like a crushing failure.

But enough with the future. For this moment, I feel compelled to honor the past. Obama and the rest of us didn't get here alone. Remember: the road to Denver would not have been possible had it not passed through places like Pine Bluff.

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