Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Back when I was 4 . . . and cruel

I am why the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is so angry.

I also am why it's such a tragedy that Barack Obama's friend and former pastor has let his anger -- and he does have every good reason to be damned angry -- define him.

I am white. I grew up in, and was indoctrinated by, the segregated South. I went to a legally segregated public school until fourth grade. And, as a child, everybody I knew was about as racist as a late-June day is long.

Black folks were "niggers" -- at least in the lexicon of the common . . . like me and mine. You didn't go to school with them, it was illegal to marry them, they got all the jobs that were "beneath" white people and -- when it was your time to go -- you didn't get sent on your way via the same church, funeral home or graveyard.

It's just the way things were in Baton Rouge, La., when I came on the scene 47 years ago next Monday. It remained that way, in slowly diminishing thoroughness, up to the time I reached adulthood. And some of it hangs on to this day.

THIS MORNING, the Democratic presidential candidate -- in so much hot water over what his pastor said and when did Obama know he said it -- gave a masterful speech on race relations in America. It may have been the most blunt and honest speech on the matter I've ever heard a politician give.

Louisiana Gov. Earl Long may have given a more succinct, more colorful, more imperfect and more courageous version of that speech before a wild-eyed bunch of segregationists in the state Senate, but that was nearly two years before I was born. It got him thrown in a Texas nuthouse . . . so he couldn't exercise his gubernatorial power from his rubber room.

Barack Obama, at long last, has said what so long has needed to be said . . . in the manner it needed to be said. It's important, and his life -- and my life -- testify to why it's so important.

Having been born into a racist family in a segregated state, I was indoctrinated into America's original sin from my first moments of awareness. I did about the worst thing you could do to an African-American man -- at least, the worst thing short of murder or extreme physical violence -- by the time I was 4 years old.

I remember that I was sick, and that the doctor had called in a prescription to Andrew's Rexall Drugs. In the mid-1960s, drugstores still delivered. And we all know who the "delivery boys" were, at least in the segregated South.

SOON ENOUGH, there was a knock at the door. Back then, our house had no air conditioning. On that warm day, all the windows were wide open, and there was little fear that someone was going to burst through the screen door to rob, rape and kill you.

So the delivery man heard well when I ran toward the kitchen, yelling at the top of my lungs.

"Mama, the drugstore nigger's here!"

I think my mother had decency enough to be embarrassed as the man took her money and handed over the prescription as he muttered, "I'm not a nigger." I wonder what that poor man must have felt -- what a man old enough to be my father felt -- when this little white boy was blithely, naturally as he breathed in the air, running around the house announcing the presence of the fill-in-the-blank "nigger."

What does it do to a man to be so cavalierly dehumanized even by a small child? What does it do to a small child to so cavalierly dehumanize a man he ought to be calling "sir"? At least in a more rightly ordered society.

What does it do to a country when so much of what is considered "normality" is in reality cruel and inhuman?

It warps it, is what it does. It perpetuates an endless feedback loop of dysfunction.

I grew up in a sick society, as have many in this country. It takes a lifetime of hard work, introspection and (frankly) grace to overcome that. I'm still working on it.

Barack Obama's working on it, albeit from a different angle than I am. So is, I suspect, Jeremiah Wright, who comes from the perspective of that ill-fated drugstore delivery man . . . though it's obvious he has more work to do. Hurtful things -- the immense human tragedy of America's original sin -- have molded the retired pastor and led to anger that is righteous . . . to an extent.

BUT WHEN IT defines a man -- when it defines large segments of society -- it is no longer righteous. It just adds to the tragedy. Like the tragedy of a presidential candidate potentially going down in flames because he gave an angry old friend the benefit of the doubt.

Race (and racism) always has been a complicated matter in this country. And nowhere in this country has it been more complicated than in the Deep South.

I, the Caucasian son of racist children of racist parents in a racist land, just might be -- for all I know -- related to the angry (and black) Rev. Wright. I mean, if Barack Obama is kin to Dick Cheney, anything is possible.

A great uncle of mine was disowned by his family for marrying a Creole woman in New Orleans. Disowned by my grandfather who, I'm told, used to laugh about sleeping with black women who were good enough as sexual playthings but just not good enough to be a wife.

Or to treat as a human being.

I JUST FOUND OUT I have a black first cousin on the other side of the family. I wonder how many African-American aunts or uncles I might have on the philandering grandfather's.

And I wonder whether, in some cruel twist of fate, I might have been calling my own flesh and blood "nigger" when I was 4 -- back when evil was normative.

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