Monday, October 13, 2008

Yes we can! Nothing naive about that.

So, Obama is up in the polls. My fingers and toes are all crossed. But I’m missing a little of that joy that occasionally flooded over me in the primaries. I can see it from here, but I’m too deep in the muck of the bailout and my plummeting 401K (not to mention my daughters’ 527 plans—why did I look?), I needed a jolt of joy.

Luckily for me, a friend passed along this link to an essay in The Brooklyn Rail. The author, Alex Gallo-Brown, writes about his continuing optimism and admiration for Obama. It’s a stirring testimony from a young writer eager to move into a new era of race relations, one that keeps its main focus more on the promise of the future, that seeks to emerge from what Obama calls a 40-year stalemate, not by forgetting, but by looking to the hope and power of youth, of the future.

In a week when the Republican ticket has been so despicable in its invocation of past hatred and fear, it’s quite stirring to remind ourselves that we can know about racism, current and past, without succumbing to it. We might, maybe, even be able to push ourselves forward into a future that looked brighter for all.

He writes about the effect of his time at Garfield High School on his perceptions of race, too. I’m a lot older, but I’m a Garfield alum, too. I’ve written about Garfield a couple of times here, but I’ve never captured the feeling of a Garfield assembly as well as he did in these paragraphs:
In February of my freshman year, we had an assembly to honor Martin Luther King Day. It wasn’t very much different from previous assemblies held at my middle school: A black girl performed a soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner; a white boy gave a platitudinous speech about leadership or hard work, I can’t remember which. (There was one novelty, a troupe of Ethiopian girls who shook their asses so fast they managed to titillate the audience and inspire a sense of cultural appreciation all at once.) Then there was more singing, more dancing, more speeches.

I don’t remember exactly what it was about that day; but I do remember the feeling as I stood in the bleachers of the Garfield gym, this surge of emotion. It said—and we said back!—we are here, and we are different than what came before.

It said that we weren’t like our parents, or our parents’ parents—we weren’t subject to their prejudices or preconceptions. We weren’t connected to the America that practiced slavery and put people in internment camps, slaughtered Native Americans and tolerated the laws of Jim Crow.

It said that we have this power—awesome power—to make something new.

Such were my feelings in high school. Then I went to college, the first of three I would attend, and quickly received a remedial education in small-mindedness and unconscious bigotry.
I don’t quite know how to explain it any better. I am amazed and moved to think that the ethos of my Garfield persists. But he is utterly right: Barack’s Yes We Can! seems deeply, deeply familiar to me, and I think it comes out of those assemblies in that old gym. A willful, intense sense of power: aggressive, occasionally even a little angry, a little naive, but full of hope. And that, for me, is the best argument I know for strong, diverse public schools: they help a diverse world full of difference feel like home. They can show young people that their job is to know our history and change our world for the better.

2 comments:

Richard said...

I wonder what you thought of today's New York Times article about Senator McCain's literary background:

"A descendant of Navy admirals who wrote unpublished novels and quoted Victorian poetry, Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, often surprises aides and friends with his literary musings and bibliophilic appetite. He cites characters from fiction and film as role models...

Mr. McCain grew up in a family full of aspiring writers, where “people talked about characters in books as though they were real people,” said Elizabeth Spencer, a novelist and a second cousin of Mr. McCain’s who spent much of World War II with him as a child at the family’s Mississippi plantation.

A beloved uncle, Bert Andrews, won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune in 1948. The senator’s grandfather, the first Adm. John S. McCain, had left behind a drawer full of unpublished fiction, including adventure stories under the pseudonym Casper Clubfoot. And the senator’s father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., loved to recite martial poems to his sons, especially 'Ave Imperatrix,' Oscar Wilde’s eulogy for the waning British Empire."

Apparently McCain's favorite novels are Maugham's Of Human Bondage and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.

I've only read two of Elizabeth Spencer's novels and one story collection, but I'm wondering if she ever used her cousin as the model for a character.

Cathy said...

As the extremely proud, but not as articulate, aunt of Alex Gallo-Brown, I want to thank you for your praise of his writing and his optimism.