The Pigment Difference

The past is never dead, but sometimes we can overcome it.

By Tom Gordon

By the time you read this, Barack Obama will be a few days away from being sworn in for his second term as president of the United States. If you are white and middle-aged like me, you may have thought—regardless of your political leanings—that you would never see a black president in your lifetime. And after Obama was elected,  you may have thought he would serve one term and no more.

If enough states had voted like Alabama on Nov. 6, Obama would have been one and done. The margin by which he lost the state —about 60 percent to 40 percent—was virtually the same as his margin of defeat to John McCain here in 2008. A look at the state map will tell you that just as in 2008, the counties Obama carried, Jefferson included, had very large black populations or were majority black.

A few weeks before the  Nov. 6 election, a friend of mine suggested in a whisper to me that black people were going to vote for Obama simply because he is black. There is some truth to that, just as there were white voters who voted against Obama because he is black. And while I can never walk in the shoes of any black person, I could not blame them if their vote was simply based on a desire to see someone who looked like them in the most powerful position on earth. It was not that long ago that black faces were virtually nowhere to be seen in any positions of power and influence here in Alabama and in much of the country, and the power structure here was determined to keep it that way.

Well, you may be saying now that “this guy is about to dig up a bunch of stuff that has been buried in history’s graveyard and ought to be left there undisturbed.” But as our Mississippi neighbor William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Those of us who have wrinkle tributaries around our eyes and little brown spots on our hands should not have to time travel very far to recall how things used to be, and how they were that way and worse when our own parents were kids. I grew up calling black men who helped my father clear some land  and the black women who helped my mother do housekeeping by their first names. At age 7, I told one of the men, whose name was Richard, that he smelled funny. I never saw black people in major roles in movies, and while I did watch “Amos ‘N’ Andy” reruns, the black people I saw on prime-time TV usually had a menial, subservient presence unless they had a spot on an entertainment show like Ed Sullivan or American Bandstand, when it was being broadcast every weekday afternoon from Philadelphia. And even that was too much for some folks. Another friend once told me her grandfather would leave the room anytime a black entertainer appeared on the Sullivan show.

I was born after Jackie Robinson integrated pro baseball, and so I saw him and players like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron on television. But for the most part black people were invisible. They did not appear in a broadly human context in the newspapers I read, the commercials I saw, and they bore exaggerated features and spoke in dialect in cartoons.

It did not cross my mind that they were in schools that were not on a par with those that whites attended, or that they were not allowed to try on clothes in downtown department stores or use the same restroom that the whites did. Like many boys, I grew up idolizing and fearing my father, but unlike a Black Belt sheriff who I came to know during my years as a reporter, I never saw him shortchanged by a merchant and feel powerless to do anything about it. I also was unaware, until much later, of the kind of games that black people like Robert Porter felt compelled to play with their white employers. The father of the late 6th Avenue Baptist Church pastor John Porter, Robert Porter worked for years as a yardman for Alabama Power chief executive Thomas Martin. Over time, he saved his money and bought a car, but he never drove it to the Martin home on Red Mountain because he felt the Martins would be upset with him showing some intelligence and initiative.

Robert Porter’s own parents no doubt had memories of their own, observing from a safe remove as monuments to the Confederacy started appearing on courthouse squares all over the South and when Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama brought forth glowing newspaper accounts of the Lost Cause. If they read the daily papers like those in Birmingham, they would see standing features that included grotesque racial cartoons—one quoting what passed for wisdom from a big lipped, kerchief-headed broad-nosed mammy, another depicting a raggedy tramp named Sambo Chicken Stealer. And with frightening regularity, those same papers would carry accounts of “a black brute” being lynched somewhere in the state without ever coming to trial.

As a post-World War II child, I also was proud of my father because he had fought in World War II, a good war in which his enemies were people I thought were called “Nazas,” but I came to know black men who had fought in it as well. Unlike my father, they had come home to be told that nothing was going to be any different. That meant limited job opportunities, no admission to the big white universities their taxes helped fund, still sitting in the back of buses, and no right to dine at a downtown restaurant.

We all know about the grandstanding politicians who vowed to defend segregation to the limit, the bombings, shootings and stabbings that greeted those who sought to change things and those who had nothing to do with any movement but were targeted just the same. There were laws passed, pre Civil War-era legal theories invoked, and the coverage that networks and major newspapers gave to these events have helped frame the image of Alabama and other states to this day. But for all that, I think that almost as bad, in a cumulative way, were the daily indignities, dictated by custom and beliefs of longstanding, that told black people where they stood in our state and country. If those indignities are in a cosmic cabinet that one day will be opened for inspection, you’ll find my name in some of its files.

A few days after Obama had taken office in 2009, I saw a bumper sticker on a pickup downtown which stated: “Obama. Oh Shit.” Today, I would not be surprised to see that same pickup bearing a sticker calling for secession. That ain’t gonna happen, and the election of another black president may not happen again in my lifetime. And while I sure as hell don’t claim to speak with authority on what black people think, I can’t say I was surprised when they voted in overwhelming numbers for Obama or when some of my black friends and colleagues journeyed to DC for the historic 2009 inaugural, or when an older black lady started crying when Michelle Obama surprised her and other visitors during a tour of the White House.

Was there some racial pride at work here? I wouldn’t doubt it. But if a December email I received from a black friend about her own Obama vote was any indication, it was hardly the whole story.

“I often have been accused of voting for Obama just because he is black,” she said.  “If that was the REAL deal, I would have voted for Jesse (Jackson), Al Sharpton and Alan Keyes. They are all black and ran for president. I did not vote for (any of them).

“It is good that Obama is black because it serves as hope that we all can achieve the good things,” she added. “I voted for Obama because he is smart and holds majority ideals that I believe in and support.”

I visited the White House for the first time last spring, when the president met with the Alabama football team in the Rose Garden, praised their championship season and their service to Tuscaloosa after the April 2011 tornado and posed for pictures with the players. There were a number of Alabamians on hand, including some well-connected Democrats who had been there before, but I was a novice with a mile-wide smile and the smile grew wider when the president shook my hand.

No, he has not been perfect, and yes, there are more than a few things that I would like to see him do that he has not undertaken. I worry about our increasingly polyglot country, and I have cried or sank into deep depression wells when bad things have happened to it.

As a reporter and someone who has lived for 60-plus years, I have seen some bad things happen in miniature because people can’t get past the pigment differences they see in each other. And yet, and yet, a guy named Obama is in the White House because enough Americans who do not look like him have been willing—twice—to get past the pigment difference and take a chance on him. Maybe I’m being naïve, but doesn’t that tell us something good about ourselves?

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