Friday, January 23, 2009

A dream realized

Last month I was volunteering a few hours at my local NPR station for their membership fund drive. During a lull in pledge calls, two women--another volunteer and one of the staff--and I got into a discussion about why do African-Americans call themselves by that moniker. Why can't 'they' just let go of that and be called 'Black', my two companions wondered.

No other ethnic group, with the exception of Native Americans, identifies themselves as such. Perhaps we hear 'Cuban-American' or 'Euro-American' from time to time, mentioned in an article or discussion, but most of us refer to ourselves simply as 'American'. And we keep our ethnicity secondary, or at least, separate from that: Latino, Hispanic, Caucasian, Asian, etc., each of which includes a whole host of ethnic backgrounds.

I pointed out that African-Americans are the only ones who are descended from those who came to this country against their own free will, that they were Africans first and Americans only because they were brought here in chains. Native Americans are identified as such because their country, their land was taken against their will, that they were the first and only Americans until us immigrants invaded their homeland, infected them with disease and poverty, and declared them savages. These two liberal-minded women, who probably would bristle at being included in the term 'men', had never thought of that before.

On Tuesday my family and I attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama (boy, does that sound good!). The majority of people who attended were African-American. In the subway, on the streets of DC, and in the crowd that hemmed us in on all sides, we were surrounded by faces of color. I felt as though this was truly their day and I was welcomed as a guest at the celebration.
None of us can really know the experience of what it means to be oppressed unless we have experienced it ourselves. The key is to listen and listen well to people of color, to trust their experience as true, and that we all play a part in the problem and pain of racism.

P.S. Below is a map of the National Mall. My family and I were standing near 14 St. west of the Dept. of Agriculture. Security closed the Mall at 9 a.m. because the crowd was so overwhelming. We were 3o feet from the fence and had a narrow view of one of the Jumbotron screens, partially obscured by a tree. When Barack Obama took the oath of office, my oldest daughter (12) was smiling and my youngest daughter (9) was standing on her father's knees, her arms pointed to the sky in V-formation, chanting "O-ba-ma!" with the rest of the crowd. It was then that I knew it was all worth it.


Will Duchon said...

Hi Cynthia,

Yes, it was an historic day. I feel that the historical significance surpassed the local significance, in that I still have reservations about what kind of "change" will take place given the infested political system in this country, but there is no question that "President Obama" is a refreshing phrase.
I have some "Native American" friends who tell me that they prefer to be referred to as Indians. And some black friends also tell me that they don't care for the term "African American", as well-meaning as the label tries to be.

Cynthia said...

One of the things I find disappointing about the human experience is that change seems to take too long. It's one decision, one choice at a time, sometimes cancelled or wiped out by the choices and decisions of others. A few steps forward, then many steps backward.

It's taken us 65 million years to evolve to where we are now. It's going to take a while longer for us to get to a point where we can at least tolerate one another. My hope is that this is the beginning of that evolution. That's what I was celebrating on the Mall, what I wanted my children to witness in a way that couldn't be experienced by watching it at home on TV.

Jan said...

I'm hoping this is the beginning of the evolution of acceptance/tolerance. So impressed you and your family were there!

Andy said...

I think its wonderful that now our children will always know that anyone can grow up to be President.