I haven’t known what to say in response to Barack Obama’s announcement, yesterday, that he’d take two days off from the campaign to visit his ailing grandmother in Hawaii. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for him – this is the woman, after all, who raised him, and his last living parental figure.
Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic had a slightly different thought, in a moving post he titled I hope this is in good taste.
One of the big mistakes we make when we look at the history of race in this country is to focus on big people and big events. What should be remembered is that, though our racial history is mired in utter disgrace, though the deep cowardice of post-reconstruction haunts us into the 21st century, at any point on the timeline, you can find ordinary white people doing the right thing. Frederick Douglass, himself a biracial black man, is a hero of mine. But arguably more heroic, is Helen Pitts, his second wife–a white woman, who traced her history back to the Mayflower, whose ancestors founded Richmond Township, NY, and who was cast out for marrying Douglass. Here is a white woman who spent the best years of her life fighting for suffrage and racial justice. After Douglass died, she dedicated the rest of her life to seeing him honored, when everyone else was on the verge of forgetting. Please read up on her. She was the truth.
Likewise, I was looking at this picture of Obama’s grandparents and thinking how much he looks like his grandfather. And suddenly, for whatever reason, I was struck by the fact that they had made the decision to love their daughter, no matter what, and love their grandson, no matter what. I’d bet money that they never even thought of themselves as courageous, that they didn’t give much thought to the broader struggles in the the world at the time. They were just doing what right, honorable people do. But the fact is that, in the 60s, you could be disowned for falling in love with a black woman or black man. There is a reason why we have a long history of publicly biracial black people, but not so much of publicly biracial white people.
We often give a pass to racists by noting that they were “of their times.” Fair enough, and I know Hawaii was a different beast, but still, today, let us speak of people who were ahead of their times, who were outside of their times. Let us remember that Barack Obama learned the great lessons of life from courageous white people. Let us speak of those who do what normal, right people should always do when faced with a child–commit an act love. Here’s to doing the right thing.
To that, all I can add is my second amen of the week.