As I grow older so many memories I would rather forget sometimes run through my mind. Memories are often spurred by the events of the day. Reverend Jeremiah Wright has reminded me again of how far we have come but how far we have to go.
The memories evoked by Jeremiah Wright’s comments bring tears to my eyes as I remember the fear I felt for my mixed race nephew back in 1979. My sister had married an African American and the hatred directed at our family because of a marriage and one of the sweetest little boys I have ever known is still hard to discuss. We have long made peace with those we love and have known all of our lives. So many of them just didn’t know what to do and to this day apologize for doing nothing. Very few we knew were hardened bigots but those who were made life hard for many years.
Reverend Wright reminds me of something so few want to admit, bigotry comes in all colors. The bigotry my family experienced came from the White and African American communities. Never have I felt more alone than during those days. So many I trusted and counted on let me down especially my grandfather. As I listened to Senator Barack Obama say earlier, “he could no more disown his pastor than he could the black community,” I remember how my grandfather disowned us.
If my grandfather was alive today he would be well over one-hundred years old. He grew up in a time of bigotry. So did his wife, my grandmother, her name was Sunshine.
If my grandmother were alive today she would be one-hundred and one. She like my grandfather grew up in a time that fed bigotry and racism but unlike my grandfather she knew it was wrong. My Grandmother also grew up in a time that interpreted the Biblical guidelines for Christian living which instructs women to submit to their husbands to mean: Do not challenge you husband’s authority even when he is wrong.
I wish I knew what my grandmother said or all she did to mend our family. The only evidence of her defiance to her husband came in my nephew’s birthday card.
We all received cards signed, Happy Birthday, Love Ma Ma and Pa Pa, as my grandparents were known to us. Without fail on your birthday, a card would arrive along with a crisp one dollar bill. As my nephew’s birthday rolled around the card arrived, dollar bill enclosed but it bore only one signature, Happy Birthday, Love Ma Ma. That one simple gesture spoke volumes but I often wonder if there was more. Did she ever have to look my grandfather in the eye and say you are wrong or did he see she would not be a part of his bigotry with the simple signing of a birthday card?
I have heard Reverend Wright and Senator Obama speak of tradition as an excuse for Reverend Wright’s comments. My grandfather grew up in tradition as well, a tradition of bigotry and exclusion. A tradition that ended thanks to the gentle and determined spirit of a woman who found the courage to speak out and not ignore or make excuses for attitudes that were indefensible.
My sister has told me she is sorry for what the family and I had to go through during those years. She and my nephew moved away after her marriage failed. I was still in High School and we all know how cruel kids can be. The last time she told me she was sorry I told her she did our family a favor. It took a catalyst to take us to a level of love and acceptance that so many still fail to embrace and she gave us a chance to honor and remember my sweet grandmother and her courage.
At the time of my grandfather’s death my family and my sister were not only fully reconciled with my grandfather but a couple of months ago my mother shared with me something I never knew. She said she walked into my grandfather’s hospital room just before he died. My grandfather was sound asleep and there curled up sleeping peacefully right beside him was my sister. When I let that picture run through my mind I know it is a picture and an ending made possible only because my grandmother refused to ignore or make excuses for her husband’s bigotry and helped him see things had to change and they did.
For our nation to move past the racial problems of our past we must find the courage to stand up and tell those in our midst who fuel situations of hatred and bigotry it’s time to move on and most importantly we must find the courage to simply tell them they are wrong. We can no longer make excuses or allow political correctness to prevent us from standing up to bigotry no matter where it lives or makes its home.
A sitcom is an odd place to find a profound statement on race but years ago in an episode of Designing Women the ladies were visiting an old African American woman in the hospital. She was nearly one-hundred years old. She knew she was on her death bed and the women commented on the history she had witnessed over the years. As the old woman reminisced through tragedy and joy she concluded by saying, “I know we are not what we ought to be and I know we aren’t what we are gonna be but at least we are not what we were.”
If we continue to ignore and make excuses for the voices of bigotry, hatred and separatism not only will we never get to what we are gonna be and ought to be but we will quickly find ourselves taking steps backward to what we were.
April 29, 2008