I'M THE minority in my African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn. When I carried my posessions down the street the first day, someone welcomed me by telling me to stay in my own neighborhood. Neighbors occasionally mock my skinny white ass as I walk to the subway, I’m still not quite sure what’s in jerk chicken, and sometimes my roommate is the only other white person I see all day.
It used to jar me, but I barely notice it now. I’ve melted into Flatbush, at least as far as I’m concerned. This is good, especially since I’ve always had a keen racial guilt that leads to an acute color consciousness. One set of grandparents forbade my aunt to go the prom with a black boy. My other grandma had Southern roots reaching farther back than I liked to consider. She called black children “pickaninnies” right into the 21st century, so if someone calls me “snowflake” when I walk down the street, I figure shrugging it off is the least I could do.
Maybe because of that guilt, I’ve felt that Barack Obama is more their president than mine. This is their moment—one they’ve waited for, one they’ve prayed for, and one long overdue. I’m timid when it comes to sharing that triumph, supposing myself to be one of the enthusiastic diversity-adoring white people mocked on Stuff White People Like, or an infantile version of Liz Lemon: “When I go home I am just riding on a subway car full of scary teenage … people.”
But when I went to the Schomburg Center in Harlem to watch the inauguration, some of that changed.
The audience filled all 340 seats less than an hour after the doors opened. It was more diverse than I expected—mostly black, but there were others: Me in my conspicuous blondeness, a couple of Indian men, an older white couple, a middle-aged black man dressed from head to toe in camouflage. I sat between a waif-thin older black woman in a lavender turban and a long lavender tunic, and a woman named Henrietta. Afterwards I talked to Ruth, a native of Harlem, and Sharon, a Houston native whose grandmother was born in Reconstruction and whose mom went to an all-black college.
They seemed to have something in common with the devout black women I saw hobbling towards the bus stops every Sunday in their pastel hats and pantyhose that wrinkled near their ankles—they prayed. They’d prayed for this day and then they’d prayed for Obama, even when they were afraid they’d jinx his campaign if they said he would win.
Now that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was closer to fulfillment and Langston Hughes’ dream was no longer deferred, they were still praying. Now they prayed for unity. Henrietta told me she hopes that in the next four years, “People would get together and do the right thing for every human being—work together as one. No color—just people, loving each other and doing the right thing, helping.” Ruth also wanted unity: “I would like to see white, black, Jew, Gentile all live in harmony.” Sharon was praying for the future, that we would strip freedom from jargon and make it reality. In other words, their prayers included me, hauling my skinny white ass into work we all do together.
They recognized something Paul Begala did not when he called Barack Obama’s election a “secular miracle.” It was something I recognized too when Rick Warren led the Lord’s Prayer during what was for me, the ceremony’s most moving moment. As I chimed in with Henrietta, my tears made it hard for me to get out the familiar words. The phrase, “on earth as it is in heaven,” and everything it means was part of the reason people started the fight for justice that brought us to today. In all the changes, good and bad, this prayer was constant, and reciting it united me with the older black women on either side of me.
All the work that brought black Americans from the back of the bus to the White House in half a century’s time doesn’t add up to a secular miracle. Ruth said “God Almighty” looked down and said it was time.
Photo courtesy of Jamie NYC.
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