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 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.
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.