What this election means to one 50 year old white woman

(8 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I grew up in about as stereotypical a Midwestern white middle class household as one can imagine. My dad worked, and my mom was a full-time stay-home mom, as were most of the moms of my friends, with a few schoolteachers and nurses as exceptions here and there. We were not rich, but we were very comfortable. We had everything we needed, and much of what we wanted. We knew our neighbors, not just next door, but for blocks in any direction. Any kid with a scraped knee could knock on any door around and find a mom with a bandaid, a mom who knew your name and knew your parents and with whose kids you played and went to birthday parties (in those days, with the little girls wearing white gloves and party dresses, and the boys in dress pants and bow ties, believe it or not…)

With the exception of a few college students from other nations, and ONE black family who had emigrated from what was then Rhodesia, it was a totally white community.

Daddy was a Lutheran minister, and at that time, a campus pastor at a small church college. I was fortunate to have some exposure to those foreign students, when my parents hosted dinner parties: young people from Jordan, from Tanzania, from what was then Formosa…and to that black family, who lived just down the block and who were members of our church. I went to school with the three children, and my parents and theirs became good friends.

I remember in those days seeing images on television of the strife in the south, of Bull Connor and the police dogs and the fire hoses. I could not feel the sting of the streams of water, nor the hot breath of the dogs, nor the nip of their sharp teeth. But I could see the fear in the faces of those being targeted by that vicious and evil form of domestic terrorism. I could see the hatred in the eyes of the dog handlers. I could hear the screams of the victims. And it made me terrified too. I could not understand how such things could happen in MY COUNTRY.

I remember being in Georgia with my family, when I was about ten years old. We were in a shopping center in Atlanta, and had stopped to rest on some benches in an area near some restrooms. I went to use the restroom, and as I came out, there was a little black girl standing near the water fountain between the men’s and the women’s restrooms. She was perhaps two or three years younger than I. She called me “Ma’am.” She asked if she could get a drink at the fountain. I thought she was too little to reach it, so, as kids do, I hoisted her ’round the middle and boosted her up to get a drink. She shyly thanked me, and called me “Ma’am” again. When I got back to the bench where my parents were sitting, my dad had the oddest look on his face, as though he were about to cry. He asked me about the exchange with the little girl, and I explained that she needed a drink and couldn’t reach the fountain. He in turn explained that she was probably just as capable as I of reaching the fountain, and that she was really asking if she were ALLOWED to drink from it. It hit me all at once: this was connected to those damn dogs and those damn fire hoses, and to the hatred, and to the fear. And I understood that this beautiful little girl, only a couple of years younger than I, had called me “Ma’am” simply because I was white.

My dad was very active in the civil rights movement, and did some work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I did not remember the extent of that involvement, having been only two or three myself, when dad invited Dr. King to be the keynote speaker/preacher at a national gathering of Lutheran youth in Miami, Florida, in 1962. It was years before I understood how much Dad had stuck his neck out, as the then-director of the ALC (American Lutheran Church) Youth Office in Minneapolis, to extend that invitation. But as I got older, and as we went to marches and rallies, and as we continued to do so after Dr. King’s assassination, I began to get a wonderful and solid sense of my dad’s stance on issues of peace, of civil rights and social justice. And I clearly understood his work in the context of Christian community: we were against war BECAUSE we were Christian. We were in favor of equal rights under the law BECAUSE we were Christian. And our fellow church members, and my dad’s colleagues at the college, were involved in the same efforts for the same reason.

Yesterday morning, at 7:00 am, when I entered my polling place to cast my ballot, I was voting for my dad as well as for myself. He didn’t live to see this day, but he would be SO PROUD. And last night, as I was alone at home, watching the election coverage, and texting updates to my husband and my daughter, who were together in Minneapolis (at the Bob Dylan concert!), I was thinking of him, and of how far we have come as a nation. As I watched the celebrations across the country and across the globe, I thought back to those horrendous images of the dogs and the hoses and the hatred. And then I watched the contrasting images I was seeing on my screen on this historic night. I was not in Grant Park, but I could see the elation and pride and hope on the faces of those who were there: black and white and Asian, young and old. I could hear the shouts of joy! I could feel the winds of change, from my distant lonely living room Minnesota, and I was proud, so proud…This one’s for you, Daddy…and for Dr. Martin, and for Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, for Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks and Robert F. Kennedy…and for my kids and my grandkids…for our nation and our planet.

We’ve come a long way, and we have yet a long way to travel. But we are traveling TOGETHER. And we have hope. And we will get there.


Skip to comment form

    • RiaD on November 16, 2008 at 2:54 am

    thank you for coming!

    you’ll find the people very friendly here…and the blogging much slower. i call it blogging in 3/4 time because Great essays sometimes hang around for 3-4 days with Great discussion taking place.

    So take a look around, make yourself at home……

    i think this is a beautiful essay…a little view of the world from your window

    thank you!


    • Robyn on November 16, 2008 at 4:25 am

    Even whippersnappers such as yourself are welcomed here. ,->

    • kj on November 16, 2008 at 3:27 pm
  1. Thank you, GammaRae, for this thoughtful essay.

    I was at Grant Park on that never to be forgotten night — your description of it is so very good!


  2. made a lasting impression me, too.  This is an amazing time to see come.  


  3. When we were travelling and I saw the black people I inquired; mom said it was like sheep, most of them are white but some seem to be black and otherwise, no difference.

    I said “oh.”

    A couple years a road paving crew came through our neighborhood and the black sheep talked so differently!

    What was that all about?

    I started paying attention to the old movies and tv shows that had black sheep in them, and I noticed they seemed to be a lot more exaggerated and, I don’t know, –clownish– than the black sheep that I saw playing in parks as kids, or doing paving as adults.

    A lot of stuff wasn’t adding up.

    Brown vs. Board, I Spy, bridges fire hoses and dogs, I’m Spartacus, .

    A couple black ex sharecroppers on my construction crew realizing that, 30-40 seconds after they mumbled their black blarney, my white musician’s ear translated it.

    They’d sit around with us during lunch break, inventing impossible jokes about the boss’s genitals, for the purpose of making me spit up milk out my nose half a minute later when I figured out what they’d said. What a riot.

    Many of my people are Irish, “blarney” is a word for the mumbling we did to communicate to each other without being found out by The Man. Turns out, every oppressed people do “blarney.”

    So now I’m seeing Jesse Jackson in Grant Park sobbing. Me too Jesse.

    Sing it loud, for your people.

    Because your people are our people, and here’s to most of us, eventually, figuring that out.

  4. One of my favorite Molly Ivins stories is about how, as a little girl in East Texas, she realized she was being lied to. When she asked whether she should drink out of the “white water fountain” or the “colored water fountain,” she was told the white one because the colored one was dirty.

    When she looked at the two, she noticed that the colored one was actually cleaner because it was used less. So she knew folks were lying about that and went on to ask the questions that led her to be one of the best progressive voices in the country.

    I’m sure Molly was celebrating on election night too – banging those pots and pans πŸ™‚

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