Monday, January 19, 2009

Thoughts on the Day before the Inauguration

When I was young, seven, eight years old, I liked to listen to old people talk about their lives. I would look at them and wish I could see the images inside their heads as they told me about their lives. My maternal grandmother was born in the 1880's, and I was in awe of the changes she had experienced over the course of her life. (But she never adjusted to the idea of electricity, refused to have her house wired, but finally, in the late 1960's she gave in, and for the first time, she had electric lights. Shortly after, however, the house caught fire and burned to the ground. She survived, regretting her decision to get electricity when she'd lived for almost ninety years with a wood stove and kerosene lamps).

Yesterday as I was thinking about the inauguration (which is only 18 hours and 46 minutes away at 5:14 p.m. EST), I realized: I have become that old person I talked to as a child. I thought about my childhood in the 1940s and 1950s when racial segregation was the law, and we had no hope that it would ever go away.

Racial segregation was not only signs indicating where blacks and whites sat on buses, what entrances we used at movie theaters, and where we were not allowed to go at all. Racial segregation was an ethos, a culture of racial superiority so deeply embedded that it was taken for granted by blacks and whites. It was a way of life that governed every aspect of dailiness, one that could be enforced by any white person, even a child, against any black person. The system of racial segregation that existed was, in short, a form of fascism practiced by the government and the majority white population. Even though I grew up under such a system, looking back it is even hard for me to believe that it existed, but I still carry the wounds that cannot heal.

When I look at Barack Obama, I see a man who grew up in a world in which legal racial segregation had become something read about in history classes, a man who does not remember the lynching of Emmett Till, a man who did not put his life at risk so that the words "with liberty and justice for all" would mean what they say, and I am thrilled that he knew none of that.

Yesterday's concert at the Lincoln Memorial ended with Beyonce singing "America the Beautiful," and she sang it with such tender love, with such emotion, a love and an emotion I do not have because of the time and places in which I grew up. But tears came to my eyes as I watched and listened to her, and I am so happy that she is able to express such love for this country.

I feel blessed that tomorrow, one week from my 70th birthday, I will witness this incredible change in the American ethos from the matter-of-fact psychological and physical violence of the racial segregation of my childhood to an American ethos in which a black man spoke to that which is good and decent in people, and they have responded with their hopes and dreams for what we in the early years of the civil rights movement called "the beloved community."

I know that I am going to cry tomorrow as Obama takes the oath of office and as he delivers his inaugural address.

I know, too, that I will not be the only one crying.

© 2009 Julius Lester


teacherninja said...

You weren't the only one crying. Thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post, a lesson for those who grew up even later than the President. We hear it, but your words convey emotion, not simply facts. May I use your words in my high school social studies classes?
-Lindsey Brown, Atlanta, GA