My father was a “yellow dog” Democrat, and in keeping with his legacy I have long believed politics are important, and that voting actually matters. But the political shenanigans demonstrated by our Congress in response to the recent debt ceiling debate left me not just angry, not just embarrassed or afraid. They left me in despair. Me, the kid who wore a patch on my jeans in 1968 that proclaimed: “Nixon has a secret plan to end the war. He’s going to vote for McGovern.” After the euphoria of seeing Obama sweep into office, igniting such hope and inspiration, how could we be here in just two years? Squabbling our way to the brink of economic paralysis? For the first time in my life, I felt my political faith defeated. I would not bother to vote again. Washington is broken and will never fundamentally change. If these are our leaders, then heaven help us.
So I did what I have often done in moments of despair. I ran away to the movies. In the dark of a theater in Myrtle Beach, SC, I watched The Help. I’d read the book but seeing and feeling the genuine risks that one young, white aspiring writer and a few black maids took to tell what it was really like to work in those Mississippi households during the Jim Crow era was riveting. But even more powerful was being in an audience of mixed blacks and whites laughing and clapping together—in South Carolina, of all places—as the story unfolded onscreen. In fact, given my childhood summers visiting this same beach, I once never would have believed it would be possible.
You see, when we went on vacation fifty years ago, we went to a stately old Southern beach hotel where you had to dress for dinner and all the servers were black and wore crisp uniforms, and the maitre’d hands sported white gloves, with which he smoothly pulled out the chairs to seat the ladies. I remember their names, their faces, and their duties as clearly as if I being led to the table right now. Cleo served the bread in a special silver bun warmer and served the roll you picked with tongs. She always had a floral handkerchief in her breast pocket that made her stand out and seem so friendly. Riley, the elegant maître’d, looked like a black Alfred Hitchcock, rotund, formal, and searingly articulate, and the only one of the dining room help that wore a black jacket instead of a white one. One waiter would be assigned to serve our family for the entire week, and we jittered with excitement to see who it would be this year: Daniel (also known as “Lamb”), Joseph (who stuttered), or Jesse (who once raised a fist in anger and was quickly quieted and led away to the kitchen)?
My grandfather, beloved but bigoted, never said their names, but rather raised a finger as he held a toothpick between his teeth to summon their attention.
I didn’t know how wrong it all was then and never pictured any other way being possible.
Yet those racial lines have largely evaporated in my lifetime. Perhaps I sat just a row behind Cleo’s granddaughter in that theater yesterday, cheering for those maids to hold their heads up and tell Miss Hilly where to go.
In fifty years it had all changed and for much the better. If we can manage to uproot the worst of institutionalized racism, then surely we can wrangle our way towards a government that truly serves instead of shames us. We did before.
So change is possible. Perhaps if our leaders could engage their genuine curiosity, compassion, and courage, instead of just tactics—compromise, coercion, and cacaphony—we would see some progress on the red vs. blue front. It seemed to work when black vs. white were the charged colors in America. I believe I’ll vote in the next election after all.