Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Meaning of This Day....

It is hard to put into words how I felt about watching the inauguration today. On the one hand, I have little faith in my mind that we are going to be in for the kind of government that I as a progressive would like to see. Yes, we will win some fights, hopefully most, but overall we are going to lose (consider the presence of someone line Lawrence Summers advising on economic policy). At this point, that is what it means to be a leftist in this country, if you vote Democratic--accepting imperfection and losing. On the other hand, I can take heed on two things. One, George Bush and his cronies are no longer in power. The sight of the outgoing President today was almost like looking at some defeated German general in 1945. He knows he lost. He knows his ideology wrecked his country and everyone else's. However, while others will miss him, I will not, especially when I think of the hundreds of thousands of corpses strewn throughout this world because of this man. Personally, I will not be satisfied until he is being prosecuted and imprisoned for the crimes he has committed. If we are to arrest Augusto Pinochet, I see no reason why George Bush should avert the same fate. He killed many more people.

The second thing that struck me was the sight of the older black folk watching the inaugural proceedings, seeing so many of them in tears of happiness. These are the true victims of the past, those who went through Jim Crow, suffered under it and remember George Wallace and Bull Connor. I surmise that most of them felt this day would never come. After casting my first vote for Jesse Jackson in 1988, and going through the disappointment of watching him lose the nomination (and the way he was baited by members of his own party), I was convinced that it would be another 50-100 years before an African American was ever elected President of the US. Considering what the real victims of this system had to endure, I guess I was too much of a cynic. Yes, it is symbolism and does nothing to alleviate the million or so African Americans we have locked in our prisons (most for nonviolent drug offenses). It does not make up for the very real racial disparities that exist and persist in this country. And I seriously doubt that today will do much to stop local police departments from murdering young black men (in hails of 40-50 bullet fests or one in the back).

All of the aforementioned notwithstanding, today's inauguration brought me back to an ex-neighbor of mine, who I lived next door to for over four and half years. Her name was Carlene, and when I first met her she was a recently widowed and retired lady in her late 60s. Her husband had just died a couple of months before, not long before my own father passed away, so we had much to talk about. She was a lonely soul and really had no one to share her time with. She would talk for hours to me about her family, her children (I felt I knew them as much as anyone), and about her youth. She grew up in the same state as I did, but a different part of it (which was culturally closer to the South), after moving north from Georgia as a little girl. She grew up as a young African American child of segregation, and what amazed me the most, other than how horrific the South was in those days, was the degree to which the state-sanctioned racism followed her. Private segregation in swimming pools, clubs, and businesses was not uncommon in those days in the Mid-West (basically, until the Civil Rights Act), and she relayed about the way she was treated (kicked out stores, pools, etc.), about meeting her husband in college, about how they participated in the civil rights movement, demonstrations, and were actively involved at the local level in eliminating the racial exclusions that were in place in the north in those days.

I knew there were places like this in the north into the '60s (Indiana had the highest membership of the KKK in the 1920s, and my home state tolerated voluntary segregation from white-owned businesses and facilities), but to hear it first person, to listen to her parlay her experience and how she was treated, it gave me a greater appreciation for a person's internal fortitude and how often whites have lived a privileged existence in this country (think of how white people respond to gun control laws back in the '90s, and ask yourself how they would have responded to treatment like this?). I rarely discussed politics with her, but Carlene was a soldier of that movement. She was excited about Barack Obama winning the nomination. Sadly, tragically, she died of cancer in the summer, several weeks before the convention, and never saw the general election. I thought of her that election night, about how sad it was that she did not live to see it. I could not help but to think of her today. It was really her time. More than anyone, it was people like her (a housewife and secretary) who broke down racial barriers in this country.

And yes, I am sure I will be disappointed with future actions of my newly elected government, but on this day I will give it a rest. If nothing else, Dick Cheney broke his back.

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