Tuesday, January 20, 2009

OH HAPPY DAY (part 1)

I know I’ve written of this before (a lot) but nonetheless, I can’t help but take this day personally, as I know so many others are.

In 1961, the year of Barak Obama’s birth, I was 19 and very much in love with an 18-year-old “black” girl. We wanted desperately to marry. But our parents were against it. In fact, the entire world as we knew it was against it.

There were many states in the USA where it was illegal for a “white” person to marry a “black” person. There were also many states where my girlfriend—known as “Bambi” to her friends back then because of her big brown doe-like eyes (the mistake most of us made that the Disney “Bambi” was female)—could not go to many public places because of her dark skin.

In fact later that year I was stationed in South Carolina—deliberately shipped there by superiors who thought a dose of rigid segregation would cure my love—where Bambi, had she been there, would not have been allowed into any local restaurant or movie theater or church or any public place that wasn’t designated “for colored only” (even the local drive-in movie did not allow “colored” people to come in their own cars!).

The opposition we faced everywhere was so strong (fights, threats, curses, scowls, finger pointing, and much worse), it made our resolution even stronger. But even among those who loved us and cared about us the same refrain was heard over and over again “Your kids won’t have a chance, they’ll be ostracized by both sides, they won’t know what they are,” etc. etc. etc.

Our parents in particular could not see any changes coming any time soon enough to benefit any child born in 1961 of “white” and “black” parents.

We fought this struggle for a few years, until we were old enough to marry on our own, but by then the fight had taken its toll and we were further apart than we’d been when we first fell in love. We were living very different lives in different places (I was in the service for a little over four years) and eventually we moved on.

But we remained friends, deeply loving friends, for the rest of her life.

I eventually went to college on the G.I. Bill, even getting an MFA in poetry (!) and married three times, always missing her and what we originally had. She went to college nights while working and eventually got a Masters in Social Work, marrying three times herself.

We got back together once briefly, in middle age. But we were on opposite sides of the country devoted to our children and work and before too long she was married again and so was I, to other people.

I wrote about her and us in our youth here and there, and she did some writing herself. We often spoke about writing our story together, maybe as a screenplay (she was a published writer as well).

But before that could happen she got cancer, and though she fought it for ten years, working up to only two weeks before she died (trying to place a child with tough handicaps with a loving family, which she did as part of the work she was devoted to) it finally got her.

Watching Obama take the oath of office today, I wept thinking of her, of her parents and mine long gone and how wrong they were about the children of “mixed marriages”—and of all those who struggled against the racist laws and practices and attitudes we were born into but who are no longer with us.

I lost friends in that struggle—“black” and “white”—and I could feel their yearning, their dreams, their passion for justice and equality and progress filling my heart to bursting as I watched Judge Roberts stumble over a simple oath of no more than thirty or so words (and be corrected, amicably, by the Constitutional lawyer and professor Obama).

And as I did, suddenly the song “Oh Happy Day” started running through my head. Yes indeed, oh happy day.


Anonymous said...

I've said this before, to you, and to those people that I've introduced your work to; the story of your life — told over the years through your poetry and prose — is a microcosm of the larger, American narrative and much can be gained by reading it through.

By telling the story of your and Bambi's relationship, and how it was systemically sabatoged by the culture of its time, you put a personal face on the subplot of discrimination and prejudice that dictated the greater story of our American history. A subplot that ran counter to the prevailing American propaganda, that this was a country dedicated to freedom and justice for all.

Perhaps that national, cognitive dissonance ends today.

Perhaps the same gains can now be made for our gay and lesbian sons and daughters.

Oh happy day!

JIm said...

Obama Speech

Obama graciously threw a few bones to conservatives, mentioning, how "markets can be a force for good or ill with the power to generate wealth and freedom". To the Muslim world, he offered a willingness "to extend our hand if they are willing to unclench their fist". He called for a new era of responsibility - "recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly"…

All in all, not bad and certainly historic. Maybe this will end the whole nonsense of using race as a club for political advantage.

Mr.Obama is, hopefully, going to rein in San Fran Nan and her desire to raise taxes in a recession and her desire to prosecute folks in the Bush administration. If she pursues punishment, hopefully she will subpoena herself, since President Bush kept Congressional leaders well informed of war moves and strategies.

Curtis Faville said...

The best thing in his speech was the bit addressed to leaders of the Muslim reaction. Show us you're capable of building things, instead of tearing them down, blowing them up.

That's the message everyone has been waiting for someone to send to the Muslim world. It was a long time coming, but it's spot on.