Sunday, January 25, 2009

We Have Overcome

We kept the kids home to watch the swearing in.

We cried.

They were alternately interested, excited, bored and restless. But they watched as Barack Obama became the 44th President.

At four years of age, they may not remember this moment, though we can tell them they saw it happen. What really strikes me, though, is that Obama will be the first person they consciously know as President of the U.S.

That means the idea that someone can't be President because of the color of their skin will simply never occur to them.

When they read about slavery and segregation in history books, they'll be puzzled and wonder how anybody could've thought that people who weren't Caucasian were any less bright, any less worthy, any less deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than anyone else.

It's not that racism is dead. Far from it. And as Jewish kids, my kids are likely to experience prejudice at some time or other.

But they'll know it's bullshit.

They already know well people who are African-America, Latino, Asian-American, and white Anglo-Saxon. They know Christians and Jews, some from here, some from abroad. They know straight people and gay people. They don't know any Muslims yet, but we'll work on that. Some of these people are friends. Some are neighbors. Some are teachers. All are welcome in our home.

They've never once asked why some people look different from others. They just accept.

So having a President who looks like Obama is the norm to them.

This past Monday, on the observance of Martin Luther King's birthday, Dad and I watched the replay of the WE ARE ONE concert at the Lincoln Memorial, after the kids went to sleep. The highlight for me was when Pete Seeger came out and led the crowd -- and Bruce Springsteen -- in Woody Guthrie's THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND. Pete Seeger was at the very forefront of the civil rights movement back in the 1950s. He used folk music as a political weapon. He was blacklisted, he paid an economic price for his convictions. But he knew what was right and he never wavered.

I had the good fortune to meet and sing with Pete Seeger when I was a kid, a summer camper at Trywoodie, a sort of feel-good hippie influenced camp in Duchess County, NY. Me and a bunch of campers got to sing onstage with Pete at the Sloop Festival, staged to help clean up the Hudson River. He's been one of my heroes ever since, and he was always my parents' favorite folk singer. Hearing him sing was a spiritual experience for them and for me.

My own parents picketed a grocery store in their native Brooklyn in the early 1950s, when they were in college, because the store wouldn't hire black people. My grandfather helped unionize insurance salesmen and women, a number of them African-American, in the South as well as the North. So our family's support of the movement goes back to its inception. This isn't an unusual thing for Jewish families, I think. As Jews whose ancestors fled the discrimination and pogroms of Eastern Europe, many of us were taught never to forget, and that as long as anyone, Jewish or not, is being oppressed, we all are.

So I cried watching Pete Seeger reclaiming America from the Bush Years and sanctifying, once again, the site of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

And I cried again the next day as my kids sat with me and their dad watching a man of mixed race become the freely elected leader of the free world. Tears of joy are rare in this world. This was a cry I was glad to have had.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love to find Trywoodie appearing here there and everywhere! You in the yahoo group?