Thursday, March 27, 2008

On family, on race

It’s long been said that the personal is political; there are times when the political is also personal. Sometimes extremely so. Last week, as Senator Barack Obama delivered his “We the People” speech, his words moved me deeply. Even now, they resonate profoundly. A white, middle-aged, middle-class woman raised in Orange County and now living in Santa Barbara—what could his address about race have to do with me?

My first knowledge of racial disharmony intruded on a picnic with another family; my dad worked with the other dad in the aerospace industry, and we all went to a local park together. We kids played together and our parents socialized easily; it had been a lovely day until a couple of teenage boys rode their bikes past and hurled hateful names and insults at us and our African-American friends. It was a moment of terrible hurt and humiliation for all of us, seared into my memory forever. For reasons never spoken, we never socialized with them again.
The 1965 Watts riots occurred shortly thereafter; as we watched on television—a world apart, yet only fifty miles away—my family of origin, perhaps feeling threatened, transformed, hardened. Race, which had previously seemed like no big deal, suddenly became a topic of regular conversation and it wasn’t pleasant.
Ironically, perhaps inevitably, given the charged atmosphere, the unimaginable happened. Within the next decade, shockingly to parents, grandparents and extended family, my sister and a very close cousin developed romantic relationships and had children with African-American men.
Unwed mothers of biracial children, they were cast out of the family; other members of the family formed alliances on one side or another. Those of us who stayed in touch and spent time with the exiled learned of the struggles they encountered in the unfamiliar culture in which they now lived; others had no contact whatsoever. My sister, with her three young children in tow, once tried to move to Santa Barbara so we could be closer, but she felt too uncomfortable with the lack of racial diversity here, and chose to remain in Oakland instead. In retrospect, their lives, our lives, and even our community would all have benefited from their presence here.
Their absence has been felt at an uncounted number of family gatherings—and sometimes the possibility of their presence complicated the planning of other celebrations. With some degree of reconciliation, they have returned to the fold in a limited way, along with their current spouses, and grown children, who now have children of their own.
This painful family situation now spans five generations. It has forced family members to grapple with issues of race and ethnicity; culture and class; pride and prejudice; embarrassment and empathy; forgiveness and acceptance; nonchalance and bigotry. There have been mistakes and misunderstandings, magnified for the lack of familial or cultural context, common language or role models. It’s been a struggle mostly in private, mostly in secret, mostly in shame. Even the fundamentalist religion of my parents offered more judgment than compassion, and no more of a road map than any other institution.
When the unlikely biracial candidate for the Presidency spoke recently with honesty, clarity and recognition of the issue that has characterized my own family for three decades, it was a moment of personal revelation. Finally, someone on a national stage addressed the searing divisions that hurt us in the most unexpected ways. He gave voice to a private issue with public, even political overtones that’s rarely, if ever, mentioned in private, public or political discourse. His leadership
shone a ray of light in a long, dark place.
The discussion of race in American in the political realm reminds us it remains a very personal issue that reverberates outward.
Those of us whose hearts have been touched by the truth of Obama’s address know that the subject is cultural, emotional, religious, spiritual, and for some, almost primal in its intensity—and it must be brought out into the open and healed. It isn’t something in that neighborhood, down South or somewhere else. It’s right there in Orange County, right here in Santa Barbara; it’s everywhere.
Senator Obama reminded us to “find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.” Where family ties have been stretched to the limit, eloquent words offer—yes—hope—that transcendence just may be possible. Hearts can change, eyes can open and perspectives can shift. As he noted in his inspirational address, “America can change.” One individual, one family at a time.
Yes we can.


Anonymous said...

The beginning of the second paragraph is missing.

(Also, shoes are shined, rays of light are shone.)

Santa Barbara Daily Sound said...

Thank you! The problem has been fixed.