Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Living into the Promise

Barack Obama is the president elect of the United States.

I keep thinking of the people I wished had lived to see this day.

Mildred and Otis Gilbert were the first African Americans I ever knew. Their daughter Betty and I were almost exactly the same age. Mildred worked for my mother and Otis shined shoes at the town barber shop. Mildred would bring Betty with her to work, so the two of us played together every day from the time we were three years old.

Betty was the only black child in our little West Texas town. When it came time to start first grade, Betty went with me on the first day of school to the only elementary school in town. It was 1951. Though the two of us did not know it at the time, all hell broke loose in town as a result.



Before the day was out, death threats had been made against this gentle hardworking couple. My father brought them over to our house to keep them safe.

Pickup trucks began circling our block.


After talking long into the night, it was decided it was not safe for them to stay. So my dad spirited them all away before dawn. He was the town's only doctor, so no one dared stop his car or challenge him. He took them 80 miles away to Midland where he helped them find a place to live and jobs. There was a "colored" school there for Betty to attend.

I was heartbroken, mourning the loss of my playmate for a long time. It took me a while to realize that my hurt was nothing compared to the terrible injustice done to Betty's entire family. It took me even longer to realize the injustice being done to an entire race.

I will never forget the night they left. The fear in the faces of all the grownups, the disbelieving anger of my mother and father, the resigned tension in the faces of Mildred and Otis, the confusion and terror in Betty's face -- they are etched in my memory with a precision time has not dimmed.

As I matured, I began to dimply grasp that the racism the Gilberts were victims of was related to the religious bigotry my family experienced as the only Roman Catholics in our Southern Baptist town in a county and state dominated by Southern Baptists who told us we worshipped statues, did not believe in the Bible, and worshipped Mary as a goddess.

It took me even longer to see that both of these things were intertwined with the sexism in my church that denied me the opportunity to be an "altar boy," that in my school had my teachers telling me that girls could not play sports with boys, that in my own family had my parents telling me girls could be nurses, boys could be doctors.

It has taken me much longer to realize that the heterosexism that undergirds homophobia is deeply embedded with these other forms of bigotry.

The interlocking nature of oppressions is something our nation -- most times much too slowly -- is coming to understand.

One of the strengths of the United States is that, however unevenly and slowly, we have continually enlarged the circle of those who are considered part of We The People.

In the beginning, that phrase included only white male landowners. Then the circle was enlarged to include all white men. Then all black men were -- in theory at least -- included. It took until 1920 to include all women. Even then, all was not well. African Americans male and female are still too often excluded from America's promise, and women are still only slowly making inroads into the halls of power on local, state, and national levels.

Homosexual Americans still are too often excluded, as are those deemed too old by a youth-obsessed culture.

What gives me hope is that dreamers are still among us. There are still enough of us who believe in the promise of America to keep pushing the edges of the circle outward.

So let us savor today . . . and then get back to work.

5 comments:

Fred Schwartz said...

Katie,
As part of the generation growing up in the 60's I wanted for the hate and bigotry to go away. The upheaval we felt was real and unfortunately most of my generation turned towards money to hide our inability to make the changes we saw that needed to be done. Now, some 40 years later we have, according to some accounts, come full circle. We have something to be proud of BUT, at least at this moment, there is still much work to be done, particularly in California.

OT: Nice to hear from you.

Mary Beth said...

This is an amazing story, wonderfully told. Hope it's okay that I linked to this and the previous post on my blog

www.marybethbutler.typepad.com

thank you!!!

Leonardo Ricardo said...

A lovely personal story...thank you for sharing it with us.

¨Now, some 40 years later we have, according to some accounts, come full circle.¨ Fred

Yes, I feel that too. I was there, at college, in the San Francisco Bay Area starting in the Fall of 1961...last Tuesday, I realized, many of our dreams, hopes and changing realities finally came into being...last Tuesday the ¨uptight¨ crack was broken and love flooded America...it was easily viewed at Grant Park Chicago...did you see those faces? They were the everyday faces of OUR not-so-young now past!

I recognized EVERYONE immediately!

Judy Alter said...

Katie, a wonderful story that tells us how far we have come--and yet how far we have to go. I am elated at the election results--and a bit afraid for Obama. He has so much on his plate as he inherits a country in disarray and he will be under such scrutiny as the first African American and as a progressive. And I think of President Kenneday, and I am afraid.

janinsanfran said...

Katie -- that is truly a lovely reflection. Yes we can! Nuthin' else to do...