Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Election Reflection

It was an annual rite of passage in my family. Whoever was celebrating a birthday had to endure a bit of friendly teasing about the anticipated flavor and texture of "this year's bowl of yummy delicious prunes." My mother, after making sure everyone had been properly fed at the birthday party, would say blithely, "well, I think it's time to get the prunes," and off she'd go to the kitchen for a few minutes. She would return not with a bowl of prunes, of course, but with a chocolate cake with lit candles, and on cue, everyone would sing Happy Birthday and the festivities would recommence.

On my seventh birthday everything changed.

In front of Jimmy Kelly, Russell Cartwright, Eddie Gaylord, Joe "Buster" McPherson, and Wayne Drown, the five best friends a seven year old ever had, my mother actually returned from the kitchen with a big bowl of steaming prunes.

I burst into tears.

My mother had a "Plan B" which she immediately called into play. The cake that was waiting in the kitchen was brought in and served up. The tears dried. The gifts were opened and at the end of the day I was left wondering about two things...

Would I ever live down the fact that I had burst into tears in front of my best friends on my birthday (answer: yes of course--they were my best friends!); and Where was my father?

For some reason he wasn't there that day, and while he might not have had the foresight to stop the prune fiasco before it happened, he might have had some useful words of wisdom with which to comfort me.

I turned seven in 1965 and like many white Americans, I was largely untouched by the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s--although I remember reacting with equal horror to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I had black friends in my hometown growing up; I had black friends at schools, and a black roommate for three years at college. I was certainly aware that the civil rights struggle was ongoing--the last documented lynching took place in 1981 in Alabama, the year after I graduated from college, but the slow and steady infusion of African American culture into my own "cultural mainstream"was exactly that--slow and steady and continuous, even to this day.

Two things happened in 1992 that gave me a fresh perspective on what was then the current state of African American relations in this country, and on my own historical connection to the civil rights movement.

The first was I was in Atlanta for my final interview with the Centennial Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad when an all-white, Los Angeles jury found the police officers who beat Rodney King nearly to death were acquitted. I left for the airport less than 20 minutes before all hell broke loose in the downtown neighborhood where the Olympics were headquartered. I had never before been that close to a situation that got that out of control. We had all come so far, and still had so far to go.

The second was a few months later when, as a senior staff person for the Cultural Olympiad, I had the occasion to attend a ceremony at the Martin Luther King Memorial just up the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I walked through the doors of the Memorial gallery and started up and down the displays of photos and memorabilia that documented Martin Luther King's extraordinary life.

One particular poster-sized photo stopped me dead in my tracks. It was taken during the final day of the "voting rights march" from Selma to Montgomery by the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, on assignment for Ebony Magazine, Moneta Sleet, Jr. and shows Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King singing in the rain as they cross the city line into Montgomery. Marching to their right is an "unidentified man" (according to the caption at the King Memorial Center) who I knew had been one of only 13 white people allowed to march the entire 54-mile distance from Selma starting four days earlier.

That man was--is--my father. The date was March 25, 1965 and within a few hours of that photo being taken, I would be reduced to tears in front of my best friends by a steaming bowl of stewed prunes.

I grew up knowing my father had participated in that historic march. I have a copy of that photo with a short letter from my father, documenting the importance of that photo to him. I knew he had stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as King gave his "I have a dream" speech in the fall of 1963. I further knew that three short years after he marched, he entered the Ebenezer Baptist Church, went down to the basement, passed under the nave, and climbed a small staircase to the altar and thus became probably the only white man to view King's funeral from the altar standing among what he claimed were a heavenly host of black angels (they were, it turned out, the Supremes).

It is almost impossible for anyone who has lived for half a century or more to not have felt the emotion of the moment when, at 11:01 pm on Tuesday, November 4, 2008, the United States of America elected its first African-American President.

I have long ago forgiven my father and my mother for not being there for me (one literally, the other figuratively) on my seventh birthday. I was nothing more than a victim of the pressing pace of history (in my father's case) and staggeringly poor judgment (in my mother's case). And however small my drama is by comparison, it is my link to the much greater moment that has just occurred.

This drama, the one with two centuries' legacy that frame it, has been and will continue to be documented for generations to come. For each of us who voted, for each of us who has experienced even the smallest part of the struggle that African Americans have had to endure in this country, and for each of us who has felt at times moved, and at times provoked by the lyrical strains of Martin Luther King's voice, or the images of fire hoses and tear gas and bared fangs attacking black flesh, Tuesday November 4th will come as close to a singular moment of glory as is possible to imagine.

My father has lived to see this moment. Despite being a Republican, he voted for Barack Obama. And although he is now 80 years old and he has been told it should be a regular part of his diet, stewed prunes are his least favorite food.

In that, too, we have something in common.


Zorba said...

Well done, Alex. I had no idea. You should be enormously proud of your dad. The country is with him in spirit this week -- Yes we can! And I am further with him in spirit on the other pressing issue in his life -- to hell with stewed prunes.

Debby said...

Alex, this is a beautifully written and very moving post. I'm currently putting together a syllabus for a writing class at Brown University, where I'm a grad student. May I include this?
~Debby Katz

Alex Aldrich said...

Debby, of course you may. I'm flattered! Alex

JanRed said...

A bit of family history that doesn't get shared often at my end of the room. Thanks so much Alex! I shall enjoy even more my lunch with your Dad before the holidays.

Sue Schlabach said...

Thank you, Alex, for such thoughtful conversations last night. Thanks, also, for leading me to this marvelous essay which did (yes!) make me teary. I look forward to more reading. (And hopefully more conversations in the future.)