Sunday, January 18, 2009

Black experience

Recently I've read several books by black-American authors, among them The Known World by Edward P. Jones, The Bondswoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan, several of Walter Mosley's LA-noir mysteries, and, currently, One Drop by Bliss Broyard. Each of these books offered me glimpses into a black America I was not ordinarily privy to, but the most instructive has been One Drop.

Ms. Broyard's claim to the designation 'black writer' is tenuous at best. She's a white girl raised in the ultra-homogenous society of Connecticut's upper-crust who learned when her father was dying that, by the 'one-drop' rule, she was a black girl from Connecticut. This revelation sent her off on a seven-year journey to trace her Broyard roots, both the black and the white. It's a fascinating story, but what I appreciate the most is her attention to the last three hundred years of American history as seen from a black perspective. She's very good about providing the details which are glossed over, never understood, or simply forgotten by the white world, probably because the absences, once pointed out, are glaring.

To cut to the chase, what I've learned is this: the black experience is not the same as the white experience. And the inauguration of a black president is, for many black citizens of this country, a miracle. My vote for Barack Obama did not come because he was black; in a world turned upside down and inside out by the gobsmackingly incompetent Bush administration, Obama's ideas and speeches and brilliant campaign management were all I needed. This is not say I didn't notice he was black - that's the kind of silly thing people say to cover up the fact that they can't stop noticing. But it wasn't important to me, except to the extent that I worried about the mythical Bradley effect turning out to be real.

It really didn't occur to me how meaningful this would be to black America until I saw the scene in Chicago when Obama claimed victory, and became the president-elect. Jessie Jackson was crying, for God's sake. Jessie Jackson, who'd been caught on tape a few weeks earlier uttering a profanity because he felt Obama wasn't presenting a unified front with the rest of the black community, listened to Obama's victory speech with tears running down his cheeks. I saw that and was struck with wonder. Oh, my God, I think I said. We've elected the first black president. Oh, my God.

I've got it now. This is huge. It doesn't wipe out our history, nor does it mean that the black experience and the white experience will from this point on be the same. But it does validate black society in a way in which it had not been validated before, and for that I'm pleased and grateful and more than a little excited.

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