Here I am, a 58 year old Canadian and I found myself with tears running down my cheeks as I watched yesterday’s inauguration. As I listened to President Obama speak, a whole lifetime of memories welled up inside of me and I realized that this event culminated a whole newsreel of events that I had experienced in my life. It was personal, heartfelt and strangely satisfying. I saw the Promised Land for the first time. And it felt good.
I remember, as an eight year old, boarding a bus in Detroit and scrambling to the back seat, only to be retrieved by my Aunt Evangeline. She dragged me back to the front of the bus saying, “No, you can’t sit there, that’s where the blacks sit!”I wondered why the women of color, who waited at the same bus stop, got on last. I was confused and scared, because, in that moment, I felt that African Americans were to be feared. But how could that be, they were just like me, weren’t they?
I remember traveling in the South in the 60’s. My dad didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body and would stop anywhere to get gas or food. But I saw the “ Whites Only” signs, and the washrooms that were designated “Black” and “White”. I felt the tension in those moments. Once when he stopped at an all black station I was amused when the black attendant simply laughed and said, “Y’all are from Canada, right!”Another time Dad stopped to ask for directions in a ghetto neighborhood in Buffalo. The catcalls from the front porches were vile and frightening to me. As a 10 year old, this reverse racism scared the hell of me. The line between black and white was as wide as an ocean then.
I remember when I was 14 our vehicle broke down in Valdosta, Georgia. My buddy and I walked about that little town, exploring the stores and enjoying the quaint southern atmosphere. We held the door for a black woman at the Five and Dime and were surprised at the strange look on her face. It was if her eyes said, “What kind of joke is this?” And when we brushed past black women in the store saying, “Pardon me” or “Excuse me”, their faces showed shock and surprise. We knew, then and there, that our upbringing was far different from teens in the south.
I remember traveling to Florida when race riots broke out in Detroit. In fact, we arrived in Jacksonville the day after a huge riot afflicted this city. I remember walking around a shopping centre and our family being the only white faces in sight. The looks we got made me feel that I was different, even though I felt that I was the same as those around me. For the first time I realized what it is like to be a minority. Our entire stay in Florida was spent worrying about whether we could find a safe passage home.
I remember visiting Washington DC when I was 12. We had just come out of a restaurant when all hell broke loose. A police car was slowing moving down the street when three African American men walked slowly across the road in front of them. The police jumped out of their cars and chased down those men, bending them over the parked cars and beating them with their nightsticks. I guess the police considered their slow walk an act of defiance. This was police brutality up close and personal. How could the police treat another human in such a cruel and harsh way?
I remember when the first black man moved into our community. We’d say things like, “Have you seen the black guy yet?” Or, “I saw that black guy at the mall?”That’s how unusual it was. I also remember a group of friends who planned to burn a cross on his lawn. I was sickened by their racism.
I remember Paul Sahagian, an Armenian friend whose skin was darkly tinted and close-cropped black hair tightly curled. We’d tease him that he was our “black” buddy. The racist remarks he had to endure and the prejudice he encountered really opened our eyes. I don’t know how many times we got in fights defending Paul, but I know he made me understand that racism was rampant, and that as a white guy, I had no idea, how it felt.
I remember watching the tonight show the day Martin Luther King was killed. I listened to the pleas from black leaders as America burned. At that moment, I felt as if life as I knew it would forever change and that perhaps we’d never be able to visit the US again.
These images flashed through my brain yesterday: the fires, the looting, the harsh language, but mostly the bravery and the commitment of so many good and decent people who worked to affect change. And yesterday I saw Martin Luther King’s face superimposed over that of the President as he spoke. As a young adult, I never believed that I’d see what I saw in my lifetime
Fifty years after that bus ride in Detroit, my children bring their black friends into our home with no thought as to race or color, the basketball team I coach is mixed raced and all the players are close friends, at work and at school there are teachers and administrators of every race, creed and religion and in America the sea of faces at the inauguration gave evidence to the fact that the Promised Land is there for all of us.
So, I shed a tear, and felt the joy, all in the realization that we truly live history, and that much can be accomplished in a lifetime. That is the lesson we need to teach. There is always hope for better times ahead, as long as we continue to fight for and believe in the value of life and humankind.