Ta-Nehisi Coates has an affecting piece about Barack Obama’s grandparents, which branches out from Obama’s experience of being raised and nurtured by white relatives, to a truth that often is overlooked or forgotten in the overall toxicity of this country’s racial history.
The essay is not very long, and it’s so organically written that it’s hard to pick out quotes — so I’m just going to put down the whole thing here:
Barack Obama’s grandmother is gravely ill. My temptation yesterday was to say nothing. And then, this morning, I came across this picture at Andrew’s place. I’ve reflected a lot–personally–on Obama’s campaign and the values of parenting. I often think about how his Dad left him, and never knew that his son would be within days of the presidency of the greatest power in history. Think about this–what else could a father want? My own Dad often says that too many black men see child-rearing as “responsibility” and not “personal investment.” They forget about the joy that children bring, and instead focus on the bills, or on stupid, petty beefs with women. As my own son creeps past eight, I’ve been reminded of that.
Obama’s mother, a relatively young woman when he was born, will not be here to see him inaugurated, should he win. Whenever, I think of that I just get sad–mostly because she did know the rewards of parenting and threw herself at her kids. There’s something unjust in the fact that she won’t get to see the results of all her work.
But now, more than anyone, I am thinking of Barack Obama’s grandparents. One of the big mistakes we make when we look at the history of race in this country is to focus on big people and big events. What should be remembered is that, though our racial history is mired in utter disgrace, though the deep cowardice of post-reconstruction haunts us into the 21st century, at any point on the timeline, you can find ordinary white people doing the right thing. Frederick Douglass, himself a biracial black man, is a hero of mine. But arguably more heroic, is Helen Pitts, his second wife–a white woman, who traced her history back to the Mayflower, whose ancestors founded Richmond Township, NY, and who was cast out for marrying Douglass. Here is a white woman who spent the best years of her life fighting for suffrage and racial justice. After Douglass died, she dedicated the rest of her life to seeing him honored, when everyone else was on the verge of forgetting. Please read up on her. She was the truth.
Likewise, I was looking at this picture of Obama’s grandparents and thinking how much he looks like his grandfather. And suddenly, for whatever reason, I was struck by the fact that they had made the decision to love their daughter, no matter what, and love their grandson, no matter what. I’d bet money that they never even thought of themselves as courageous, that they didn’t give much thought to the broader struggles in the the world at the time. They were just doing what right, honorable people do. But the fact is that, in the 60s, you could be disowned for falling in love with a black woman or black man. There is a reason why we have a long history of publicly biracial black people, but not so much of publicly biracial white people.
We often give a pass to racists by noting that they were “of their times.” Fair enough, and I know Hawaii was a different beast, but still, today, let us speak of people who were ahead of their times, who were outside of their times. Let us remember that Barack Obama learned the great lessons of life from courageous white people. Let us speak of those who do what normal, right people should always do when faced with a child–commit an act love. Here’s to doing the right thing.
Ta-Nehisi titles her piece “I Hope This Is In Good Taste.” That moved me, as well — the concern to be sensitive and appropriate, while expressing such sympathetic and perceptive thoughts. It’s like, It would take a person with this degree of sensitivity and intuitive intelligence to even think to ask herself if what she had written was in good taste. Almost like the post title was a metaphor for the sensibility revealed in the actual post.