Unexpected Hope and Old Fear

In 1953, the poet Robert Lowell, contemplating the ascent of Dwight David Eisenhower to he Presidency, commented in “Inauguration Day, 1953” that “the Republic summons Ike, / The mausoleum in her heart.” His friend John Berryman wrote of Ike as “the Great White Awk!”

Things change. In 1953 I was 9 years old and, to quote E. L. Doctorow, “there were no Negroes.” My parents could afford to be charitable because none of them were anywhere near where we lived in the East-Central Bronx. The Them of negritude resided in the south Bronx, where we saw Them getting on the subway at Brook and Cypress Avenues. The rest of the world was Jewish, Irish, German, and anything but Black.

My father died before the demographic changes. He died before New York and New Jersey block-busted and white-flighted to the suburbs. In many cases, genuinely rotten Black and Latino people moved in to replace genuinely rotten Jewish and Italian people who saw the only color that mattered to them–green–so they got it and ran like hell. In many cases bastards of color preyed upon working people of color just because they were there.

Just like white people.

Late in her life my formerly liberal mother came to refer to African-Americans as “niggers.” She’d been purse-snatched by a Black kid. She forgot that in 1956 I was robbed at knife-point by a white kid. I guess all white people are guilty too….

I inherited some of those Bronx mid-century attitudes and I’m still working to throw them off my back.

Initially I had real problems with Barack Obama.  Who is this guy?  I knew who Hillary was and remains: the nearest we have to a modern-day Lucrezia Borgia. Her appointment by President-elect Obama to be Secretary of State made me a bit distrustful. But I can also understand his motive, one going right back to Machiavelli: “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”

There’s something mindboggling about this. It’s one of my “holy shit” moments. On Tuesday (today is Sunday) the first Black man in American history will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. I was 13 years old when Emmett Till was gruesomely lynched by a southern mob for making nasty remarks to a Southern white woman. In my lifetime I get to see a man of his Till’s color ascend to the White House.

To the extent that Barack Obama has taught me the limitless possibilities of this nation, he has given me hope.

But I’m also scared. Everyone who supported him is scared. The military security precautions around D.C., the armored Cadillac, the ban on vehicle traffic in the city of Washington…maybe a lot of it would happen if a white man or even woman were being sworn in. Al Qaeda is always great excuse for a show of military force and the new urban terrorism. But the fact Obama is Black also means he’s a target.

I know a guy who will not let his daughter wear an Obama t-shirt in his presence. He has referred to him in front of me as “Bahama Mama” and, yes, “The Nigger.” He’s Bronx-Like-Me but he never recovered from it. He cannot reconcile himself to the idea that the Commander in Chief has a father who came from Kenya and slept with a white woman, and that the freedom he allegedly fought for in Vietnam he is today willing to deny to a man because of his race. In all fairness, he wasn’t ready for Hillary either. She was “that cunt.”

You understand why people are afraid? It’s right out there. If there’s one guy with a grudge and hatred so deep he can’t even admit to it, then there are a thousand more. A thousand to one is shitty odds.

And the monster security is simply to prevent someone from trying to kill the next President. Say what it is without the goddamned euphemisms. Because there are crackers from all over America who would cheer if not try it themselves. There are hayseeds, rednecks, scumwads, and dickweeds who would love to see Obama face-down. Do you think Timothy McVeigh was an isolated actor in a drama of his own making?

America has made a huge step forward by removing the beam from its collective eye to elect Barack Obama. But it has not won over the flotsam and jetsam who wish the worst for him.

That is why he deserves the prayers of all people of good faith: not only that he may do well and do good, but also that he is under the wings of the Most High.


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