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Navigating the Seas of Racial Differences
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I don’t usually live my days according to a particular theme. No planning goes into them, unless I’m celebrating a birthday or some other exceptional event. But every now and then, in a sort of strange serendipity, the day comes together around people, places and ideas that have a strange symbiosis. So it was last Tuesday.
First, on the radio, there was the confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions or, as the Democrats insisted on calling him, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, just to make sure we recognized his despicable Dixie pedigree. It was similar to all of those conservatives who insisted on calling our president “Barack Hussein Obama” to remind us of, well, you know what.
It seemed as if Sessions was on trial for his past as a man of a certain age raised in a certain place, during a certain time. If you dig deeply enough into the histories of Southerners who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, you inevitably find traces of horrible words spoken, troublesome associations made, jokes that weren’t funny and an insensitivity born of the historical moment. Sessions is a product of his past. And yet, others testified to his change of heart, his prosecution of racist men in white sheets, his befriending of men and women of color and a colorblind style of mentoring.
After that, on the same radio station, I heard that Dylann Roof, a man who murdered innocent black churchgoers in an effort to start a race war in South Carolina, had been sentenced to death. Even those who oppose the death penalty had to feel some sense of justice in that. And I do not oppose the death penalty.
Later that evening, I went with a friend to see the movie “Hidden Figures,” about the African American female trailblazers at NASA who played a critical - and, until recently, unknown - role in the space program. There is a scene at the end of the movie in which John Glenn basically refuses to get in the Friendship 7 capsule until one of those black “computers” played by Taraji P. Henson does the numbers in her head and calculates the accuracy of his splashdown. It might have been Hollywood, but it sent chills down my spine.
And then I came home, turned on the TV and watched President Obama’s speech, the one I’d had the presence of mind that morning to DVR. It was moving, as most of his speeches are, and particularly compelling because it was the last major address he’d give the American people as an occupant of the White House.
I won’t get into the substance because I disagree with so much of his agenda. I did not vote for him, and I’m at peace with that. But he made the attempt, as he usually does, to rise above the partisan labels and talk to us as Americans. Some who were already predisposed to find fault heard him criticizing “us” or “them” and dismissed his words as just another late and final dig against Trump voters. I didn’t hear that, even though I absolutely heard his disdain for them in the past.
What I noted in the speech, and it could have been entirely of my own imagining, was a wistfulness at how close we Americans come to perfection and then willfully step away from it. Of course, one man’s perfection is another man’s Obamacare, but I think that, generally speaking, we spend more time hating than debating, more time whining than shining, more time inciting than uniting.
Looking at those attacking Sessions, I saw unforgiving avengers who really just wanted to fight the Civil War all over again. Then, when I heard about Roof’s sentencing, I saw the real face of racism and understood why some might still be armed for battle.
Watching that movie with those gentle, dignified women made me think of my father who, when he went to Mississippi to register black voters in 1967, encountered courage in the oppressed and oppression from the cowards. That quiet dignity, steel-backed and patient, makes the coarse, divisive chants of “No justice, no peace” seem like the work of spoiled, embittered children. Black lives do matter, of course, but so do good manners.
Which brings me to Obama. The words of this man, who has been accused of fomenting racial divisions by people on both sides of the color divide, were reminiscent of the dignified rhythms of the past. Tuesday was a day when old racists were challenged and redeemed, when murderous bigots were put down, when hidden figures of historic importance were finally illuminated and when the first black president, with trepidation and his own brand of hope, passed the baton.
And we, imperfect but with promethean potential, pick it up. And move on.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at