Saturday, March 01, 2008

Proud to be an American? 

Michelle Obama is being criticized for having said she is proud, at long last, of our country.

I was born white and southern, and I grew up feeling both proud of my country because of what they taught us about it in school and so embarrassed I wanted to disappear under the table when our maid of many years, Annie Mae Abrams, passed through the doorway separating the dining room, where she had served our supper, on her way back to the kitchen. That was when my father commenced telling his "n"-word jokes. Did he think she was deaf?

So I understand, Michelle, why you, being black, haven't found a lot to be proud about our country when you were growing up. You'd probably heard a story or two about families like mine, where nobody, not even the eight-year-old your grandmother's generation welcomed home from school each day, spoke out against her daily humiliation. My mother bragged to her friends loudly over the phone about Annie Mae time after time and meant it. I think she must have felt embarrassed, like I did. Her generation didn't set their husbands straight, at least not in front of children or the help. Then, we all know there was worse than what Annie Mae endured. Much worse.

To you, our country was probably a place where you, as a black woman, probably didn't expect to be able to attend, much less graduate from, a top notch school when you were eight years old. And when you got there, as a young adult, you may not have felt entirely welcome. And maybe that was in a large part because you knew a lot about the inner workings of families like mine.

My grandfather, a man who was well-known for his Christian faith, once called a reporter into his office. It was probably in the late 50s. He was well respected enough in Birmingham, Alabama that when he called, reporters came and listened to what he had to say. What he told this reporter was that through prayer, he had become convinced that God wanted us to treat "colored" (that was the polite term back then) people the same way we treated other white people. The reporter called one of my uncles, who told him not to print the story. When my older brother heard the story his response was to say that my grandfather should be committed. Now he is proud of him.

The only white person I ever knew to call a black person "Mrs." back then was our minister, Dr. Frank Alfred Mathes, who also paid his maid a living wage, and told his congregation about both of those practices from the pulpit. Most of his congregation paid their maids $20 a week and felt generous when they gave them their cast-off clothing. And called them Annie Mae, or Sarah, or... And they were expected to call their employers Mr. and Mrs. Whatever.

So, Michelle, I understand. Sure, things have changed rather rapidly since then. My brother, for example, is proud of our grandfather's ability to see beyond the ignorance and callousness of our white southern culture now, and may very well back your husband, should he emerge from this difficult time as the Democratic candidate.

I'm sorry, Michelle, that I didn't have what it took to stand up for Annie Mae Abram's dignity when I was eight years old, but my sons would have when they were eight and that's the kind of progress that you have seen and what probably has made you proud, maybe for the first time in your life, to be an American.

Like you, I am ashamed that our country has not lived up to the ideals it proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. I understand, Michelle, that you meant what you said, and that it would be wrong for you to take it back.

Real people understand what you mean. And we were glad to hear it.

Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?