The trouble with the inauguration is that I'm going to be watching it.
In my high school. With my students.
And I'm really afraid I'm going to cry.
There's an unspoken law about successful teaching--never cry in front of a teenager. Younger kids sometimes find it appealing when middle-aged people get teary... I remember, when the kids in my sixth grade class threw me a surprise party at the end of my student teaching there, how happy they were at a visible sign that They'd Done Good. ("Those are happy tears, right Ms. Bishop?" one student chirped.)
But teenagers are not like that. They are emotion-phobic, despite their personal penchant for drama (or because of it) and it's not a good idea to be seen as too "emo"--at least, not if you're, like, their parents' age, you know?
Which may be too bad; I may not be able to refrain from getting verklempt while I watch Mr. Obama become the next president of the United States. And, though I did vote for the man, and am at least cautiously optimistic about his presidency overall, that is so not the reason why.
It's the symbol, dammit. And I don't think that my kids, however sensitive and compassionate they may be, will quite be able to grasp the importance of this particular symbol to members of my generation... any more than I can grasp the implications of it to a black American.
I grew up in a United States where blacks and whites hated one another--flat out hated one another--on a frighteningly everyday basis. And I don't care what the color of your skin is, when you're a kid, the sights and sounds of that level of antipathy hurts your stomach when you think about it. Even in liberal New England, I was exposed to plenty of pictures of screaming anti-bussers in Southie, the photographs of burned-out storefronts in downtown Springfield after Martin Luther King's assassination, and unselfconsciously racist comments by members of my grandparents' generation.
I used to have nightmares about race riots coming to my green rural neighborhood. When you're a child, the world is very small. (Ask the children of the 9/11 generation how many of them feared a terrorist attack in their peaceful small towns; most I've asked did.) And when you're a child, all you know is bewildered feelings of inadequacy around unbridgeable, unspeakable divisions like racism.
If anyone has a notion how a priviledged white girl in an all-white suburban town in the 1970s could have fought the beast Racism, I'd love to hear it.
But I did what all children do: I grew up, tucked away the knowledge of those parts of the world I could not understand which frightened me, and I went on with the business of creating an adulthood. I ceased to think of this unbearable, incomprehesible stain on my country and my self--unless I had one of those rare openings (an openly racist joke or comment from one of my almost-entirely white acquaintance) that let me do something to act against racism, in whatever small way. But, probably like most of us, I have dealt with this wound in American life mainly through silence and averting my eyes from that part of me which bleeds.
I've gotten on with life. What else is there?
And now comes this. Here comes a black man that apparently enough white men and women could feel safe with that--and how is it I am still stunned with surprise, friends?--he became president. And he is cutting like a buzz saw through all the layers of insulation wrapping that old, old wound in me.
I am feeling within me, resounding like a gong, the question I couldn't articulate as a child, that no one ever asked.
What would I give to have it just go away, this awful, ghastly racist hatred thing? What would I do, if I could somehow magically wave a wand and undo all that injustice, and set us all free of it?
The question has entered my heart, you see. I can hear it now--it never had more than pain to communicate to me when I was a kid--and it makes me weep.
I would give anything, wouldn't you? Wouldn't anyone?
Hey--I know the plausible answer to that, looking at history, is, well, no. Otherwise there would have been no slavery; there would have been no organized and systemic opression of "freed" slaves in this country, no Klan and no my grandparents' condescending and oblivious racist comments. There'd be no edging away from the black man walking down a dark street, no racial imbalance between the inmates on death row, and no scarcity of black men and women in all professions and all levels of government. History says, people won't give up a damn thing they don't have to in order to live in peace.
Screw history. History is wrong. My inner six year old knows that. There is a part of each of us that wants justice the way it wants fresh air and green grasses, and it is only the armor of cynicism we put on as we grow into adulthood that lets us pretend otherwise, and lets us act as if profit mattered more to us, or convenience, or our own small self-interest.
The election of the first black president has cracked my armor like the shell of a lobster, and the painful truth of just how much I want peace, how much I want justice, is flowing like the sting of salt water into all my secret places.
No--there is no magic wand, and no, the work is not done because a single mortal man will take the oath of office to become the first black president of my country.
But I'm cracked open by the strength of my childhood wish for a world of mercy and love. And all I can do is stand here, helpless as that child, and weep.
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