Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Black Like Me

Next week, America will witness back-to-back celebrations. On Monday, we’ll pause to honor a pioneer of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King. And then, on Tuesday, we’ll witness the inauguration of Barack Obama, our first African-American president... if not the culmination of the struggle for equality for all Americans, certainly a major benchmark.

Reflecting on the importance of the coming week, I couldn’t help but think back over the last half century – my lifetime – and the issue which largely defined that time period: race relations in America.

It was, in fact, a half century ago in 1959 that a journalist, John Howard Griffin, embarked on his six-week journey to help white Americans better understand black Americans. As research for his book, “Black Like Me” (which later became a James Whitmore movie by the same name), author Griffin, who was white, had a medical doctor inject him with a drug which changed the pigmentation of his skin to make him appear to be an African-American. He then spent six weeks traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in an attempt to better understand what it really meant to be a black American. His 1961 book, along with the movie in 1964, helped white Americans gain a slightly better understanding of black Americans at a time when racial tensions were at an all-time high.

Now, far be it from me -- or any other white American -- to claim to actually understand the plight of African-Americans. We don’t and we can’t… anymore than we can truly understand poverty, hunger, cancer, depression, space travel, mountain climbing, skydiving, love, drug-addiction, prison, death, or childbirth… until we’ve actually done it.

But that does not stop us from sharing in the excitement, enthusiasm, and euphoria next week during this momentous occasion.

I, for one, have always believed that our nation is truly the land of opportunity in which all things are possible, and any person can achieve anything he can believe.

I’m guessing the inauguration of Obama will help many more people share that belief in the greatness of the American opportunity. And that is a good thing. I’m guessing that, a year or two ago, there were millions of young Americans who did NOT believe they had an equal opportunity to achieve greatness… but that will change next week.

To be sure, there has been a struggle to reach this point… and the struggle is certainly not over. MLK was just one of many, many individuals who fought to overcome the great obstacles which the black race faced since coming to this land as slaves.

In this modern day and age, none of us condone or understand many of the practices of our forefathers, whether it be building a slave nation, or burning innocent women as witches, or beheading the ousted rulers of the nations from which we came. Nor, in this modern age, do we understand the recent regime which would attempt to exterminate an entire race, or the current culture which celebrates the flying of jet airliners into sky-scrapers to kill as many innocent people as possible. We wonder how human nature can invent such atrocities.

But the obstacles to African-Americans -- which began with the slavery we don’t understand or condone -- have continued far beyond that practice. Just five generations ago, it was illegal in many states to teach a black person to read! Just two generations ago, most black youngsters were relegated to sub-standard educational facilities. And in this generation, that same human nature -- which allowed for practices we now find reprehensible -- is still erecting barriers every day through both attitudes and actions.

But next week, the entire world will receive the clearest signal ever that Americans, working together, are now overcoming those obstacles. We will prove to the world that we are “one Nation, under God, with Liberty and Justice for All.”

Over the last few weeks, as many of us enjoyed the college football bowl games which always accompany the holiday season, we often found ourselves watching games in which we had no real favorite. And since we had no favorite, we did what Americans do: we rooted for the underdog!

Last November, I did not vote for Obama, because his positions on most issues did not parallel my personal positions. Still, there was a part of me throughout the electoral process which was rooting for the underdog. And now that the nation has made its choice, I will embrace his Presidency. He is our Commander-In-Chief, and I will support his leadership as we all do under our system of democracy.

But next week’s celebration is about far more than issues, or partisan politics, or the change in administration. It is about opening the doors of opportunity to EVERY single American, and taking a giant step forward on the issue of race relations.

All black Americans will be enthusiastically celebrating two important days next week.

So will I.

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