My nineteen year old son and I just finished listening to Obama’s speech from today. To say I was moved would be an understatement. I can’t recall being brought to tears by a political speech before today, though I’m not so sure you could really call this speech political at its core. What I heard from Barack today was a plea to humanity to pause for a moment, to reflect on the reality of the divided culture we have created, and to see through our anger, resentment and suspicions, that the ties that bind us together are stronger than those that would seek to tear us apart. If there were any lingering doubt about this mans authenticity, his incredible will or his warrior spirit, they were certainly laid to rest today.
Please join me below for my personal thoughts and my own families journey with racism.
This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.
My forefathers came from the south. My grandfather graduated from Little Rock Central High School.
and after graduation and college, moved north. He grew up in a home that had a black woman named Martha that spent sixteen hours a day cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and countless other tasks for them before she went home to take care of her own family. My father remembers her from summer trips to see his grandparents, he called her Nanny and remembers her fondly. My grandfather looked to her as a second mother and truly loved her. Years later when she passed away my grandfather dropped what he was doing to drive down and attend the funeral and give a generous donation to her church and family. My great grandparents were incredibly, and vocally racist. They indoctrinated their kids with the idea that blacks were inferior, not to be trusted, and shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Unless you were their black person, like Martha, well, that was different. I never knew my great grandparents but my guess is that they didn’t see themselves as racist, after all, they had Martha. And they Loved her.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
My grandfather, unlike his parents, kept his mouth shut about race for the most part. He didn’t teach his children by his words, the lessons he received as a youth. He passed them on in different ways. My father after a hitch in the army where he worked side by side with black men daily, rejected those ideas and didn’t pass any of them on to me. He instead mocked the ignorance of racism. I will never forget this incident. It happened long before Dr. Kings birthday was a national holiday. When I was about fourteen years old, my father and I went to visit my grandpa on a weekday. Grandpa met us on the back porch after hearing our car pull in the driveway and greeted my dad by asking ” What are you doing off work”?
My dad answered ” It’s Martin Luther Kings birthday, it’s a holiday” My grandfather nearly had a friggin’ seizure. He was very visibly angry about that. You just don’t have holidays for negroes.
My dad winked at me and told grandpa to lighten up and join the 20th century.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
I have been privileged in my life to have been able to work with several groups of at-risk young black men through a non religious group of men whose goals are simple. To heal the world one man at a time by living a mission of service to the world at large. These kids have one or sometimes two parents incarcerated, drug addicted or both. Kids that are in trouble with the law. They are poor, vulnerable and mostly forgotten, many of them have never met their father. The first weekend I was invited to this workshop/retreat/intervention, I was the only white man there. I was invited by a dear friend and mentor who told me “You need to be here”
The weekend is about allowing these kids to confront their anger and rage, in all its fury, their self destructive behaviors, without judgment, and then helping them learn how to channel that into something positive. It is at times scary, awe inspiring, and often very very sad. My experiences working with these young men has been life changing. Nobody gets to hide on these weekends, not even the adults. The first night I was looked at with open hostility. I was a representative of all that had gone wrong in their lives. Whitey had been fucking them over their whole lives, and the truth is, He had been.
And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”
There is a point on these weekends where each young man is asked to confront himself, to look deep inside himself, to find the truth about himself. To see and learn the extraordinary qualities that make him a magnificent human being worthy of all the love and respect he deserves. It is very personal and very powerful.
The first young man before his process pointed at me and asked “What the fuck is HE doing here”? My whiteness had been a simmering anomaly since we all arrived. It was silent, There was an electricity in the air. I was silent for about 30 seconds then I pointed at my mentor and said ” I am here because of Henry. I am here because he is my brother and I trust him with my life. I am here because he told me I needed to be here and now I understand why.” I walked over to the young man looked him in the eye and said, ” I am here because I care.” We both just started crying, and hugging. Huge gut wrenching tears. It was as if we had both been carrying the feelings of generations.
But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.
I spent the rest of the weekend surrounded by some of the most intelligent, powerful, funny and compassionate young men I have ever met. They adopted me as their “crazy ass white uncle”. They gave me their trust and in return I reflected back the power and beauty each of them carry within themselves. It was magical. The last day when leaving there were many tears, many hugs and much love. I was hooked.
My son and I finished listening to Baracks speech together and sat for a moment, my thoughts moving from contemplating all the things that could be with a man like him in the White House, to my weekends with those young men, to what the future would hold for my son, and perhaps someday his son. He sat watching his fathers tears, thinking his own thoughts. We could have had a short conversation about the speech before he needed to leave for a class, instead we opted for silence, he looked at me, and I looked at him, and in that silence I felt my love for him grow yet again, and in that silence I felt my heart beat once again.