I have just finished sobbing for hours over Barak Obama’s winning the US Presidency. I lived in Boston, Palo Alto (California), and Albany New York as a small child. My father a student on a scholarship, we camped all the way across the country and back. (What possessed my family to go south in summer and north in winter is beyond me, but it did mean seeing spectacular ice formations in Wyoming, hanging off the gutters of the motel we could just about afford.)
We witnessed a time of great change in America: the civil rights’ movement; the last throes of the ghastly Vietnam War. The end of the 1960s. I went to three schools. The last was a school which had a predominantly black population, at the butt end of town, where we could afford to live in one room in a student hostel. I will never forget it. The black kids were lovely: they had dignity, humour and a sense of fun despite shocking teaching (one teacher used to take their lunch money if they ‘were naughty’ and pocket it for herself. Another made us put our heads down on the desk because we ‘talked too much’ while she popped butterscotch in her fat poor-white-trash mouth, did her nails, and read Mills and Boon.)
Although my friends were black, the teachers made me sit with skinny white kids who were mean and taunted you when you went to the toilet. Although, at 7, I was still colour-blind, I was getting the hint that Life in America was not the same for everyone. I couldn’t work out how my black friends stayed so open and cheerful, despite our horrid and slutty teachers’ obvious lack of care for them. I’d never witnessed teachers who didn’t give a monkeys for their pupils before. I developed a marked squint from nerves. I literally couldn’t bear what I was seeing. My parents took me out of the school and let me cycle around Albany on my little bike all day in the remaining months before we returned to Sydney.
Another incident was in Tennessee, where, on a very hot day, I leapt joyfully into a public swimming pool, not realising I was in the ‘wrong’ section. I remember the bemused looks of the black onlookers, who, I think, were generously smiling at a little girl who couldn’t see the problem. They certainly weren’t unkind or try to push me out.
Much later, I went to Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government. Despite my great love of that school, which probably gave me the most sophisticated education I’ve had to date, I was still appalled at the pall of racial awareness that infected every classroom. It was like being stuck in a psychic prison – for everyone – that we just couldn’t break out of. No one was unaffected. The black students – particularly the smart ones – consciously or unconsciously registered their protest by persistent lateness which made everyone else angry and guilty and generally miserable about the whole stupid business none of us could change.
So, over a lifetime, I’d stored up great sadness for America’s confused and violent legacy of slavery, which made it almost impossible, for example, for my brother and his Caribbean-American wife to raise their children there. And which spoiled such an otherwise fabulous country. I wasn’t aware I was carrying this grief around until today. I guess you can’t just jack connections once you’ve made them. Perhaps we are all one, even though I write this from 13,000+ miles away.
In any case, many of my own bottled-down feelings got released today, hence my inability to stop crying. I know Barak Obama is many things other than black, which is why he’s won the election. But what a massive symbolic release for a country so mired in seemingly intractable racial tension. If people like me: foreigners; mere look-ons, are so affected, I can’t imagine the feelings tonight across the country for people who’ve had to endure the heartbreak of the whole sorry history for their whole lives, whatever their colour or persuasion.
Because beneath the aggression, guilt, dismay, anger, rage – usually lies heartbreak, which is the hardest thing to face of all. I think it’s denial of this underlying, unbearable heartbreak – the denial of the sacred space that connects us – that goads people into violence and self-destruction, because the alternative might just be too sad and too hard to bear.
So, Angie, my 7-year-old playmate from that tiny, caged asphalt playground and horrid toilets and lazy bone, bigot teachers in our school in the back streets of Albany, New York, if you see this blog know I will never forget you or our other friends and the suffering you’ve all been through, which I could escape from and you could not. Except, of course, we whities couldn’t escape, none of us. You can’t watch others suffer, knowing you are part of their suffering, and escape it yourself. Which is why, I think, I spent the day sobbing, releasing a lifetime of held-in helplessness and dismay.
Sobbing with joy because my deepest hopes for humanity have, at least for a day, been made real. Obama is right. America always struggles forward, somehow, when others might just stick their heads in the sand. I lived and felt that spirit of hope, despite everything, during both 2-year periods living in the United States, twenty-two years apart.
Sobbing because after so many bleak years I can once again feel hope that perhaps we can move beyond this period of war-mongering and projection of America’s inner angst onto innocent people (as well as some rather nasty ones). Who perilously seemed to lie for such a long time beyond America’s imagination, to all our chagrin.
And suddenly, everything has changed. I can once again wave joyfully to the flag I pledged allegiance to with such sincerity, aged 5. The global crash helped, no doubt, but is not the whole story. The world just flipped over. It will never be the same to be black again. Or white. Or yellow or red or blue or green. Oh happy happy day.