November 5, 2008
Today I’m going to try not to think about politics (or Faulkner, for that matter). I’m going to go get lunch and hunt about Evanston for a newspaper (mostly because Nate Silver tells me that’s going to be impossible), then come back and do some work. But before that happens—right now, and while I’m wandering about—I want to retain that feeling that came over me when they called the election for Obama last night and—alone among the friends I was with, even though I’m was by far the most cynical and conservative person in the room—I couldn’t hold back tears.
At the start of this whole mess of an election, well over a year ago, I was talking about it with a friend of mine—a Hillary supporter. He was insistent then and for some time that America was simply not yet ready to elect a black president—that our self-inflicted wounds of racism still ran too deep. For whatever reason, though I was never entirely convinced, I was adamant that it wasn’t the case. I think I had to believe it was true. And last night’s confirmation of it—despite my misgivings about certain of his policies, and despite our different positions on the political spectrum—was a relief.
Earlier this morning, after getting rid of the empty pizza boxes and making my coffee, I started skimming through my books, because that’s all I knew how to do. I came across Wendell Berry’s poem, “My Great-Grandfather’s Slaves”:
Deep in the back ways of my mind I see them
going in the long days
over the same fields that I have gone
long days over.
I see the sun passing and burning high
over that land from their day
until mine, their shadows
having risen and consumed them.
I see them obeying and watching
the bearded tall man whose voice
and blood are mine, whose countenance
in stone at his grave my own resembles,
whose blindness is my brand.
I see them kneel and pray to the white God
who buys their souls with Heaven.
I see them approach, quiet
in the merchandise of their flesh,
to put down their burdens
of firewood and hemp and tobacco
into the minds of my kinsmen.
I see them moving in the rooms of my history,
the day of my birth entering
the horizon emptied of their days,
their purchased lives taken back
into the dust of birthright.
I see them borne, shadow within shadow,
shroud within shroud, through all nights
from their lives to mine, long beyond
reparation or given liberty
or any straightness.
I see them go in the bonds of my blood
through all the time of their bodies.
I have seen that freedom cannot be taken
from one man and given to another,
and cannot be taken and kept.
I know that freedom can only be given,
and is the gift to the giver
from the one who receives.
I am owned by the blood of all of them
who ever were owned by my blood.
We cannot be free of each other.
Truthfully, I don’t know whether any in my family ever owned slaves. My maternal family was still in Poland and Russia, but I know my great-grandparents were in Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century, and their parents before them. We like to claim that members of the family were here for the Revolution, but I don’t know if there’s any way to back it up.
But I’m almost certain I had ancestors in Kentucky at a time when the could have owned slaves; I don’t know that anyone alive could tell me if they did. I think I may be too afraid of the answer to ask—what if we can’t ever know? When the past is uncertain, I think, that’s when it becomes most haunting. (Go read some Faulkner if you need the proof.)
I needed to believe that America could elect the son of a black man and a white woman whose name is Barack Hussein Obama. While his defeat would not have proven my instinct was wrong, his victory confirms it. I can breath a little easier now. I believe in the idea of America—not as divinely-ordained or chosen—but (to quote Leonard Cohen) as “the cradle of the best and of the worst.”
Walking around yesterday, I had a truly odd sensation. The outcome seemed more or less clear ahead of time. I was living through a day that would be considered particularly historic. I still don’t know what to think of the way that made me feel, or how to really describe it. It was strange. But because of it, I think I have a better idea, though, of what Cohen meant when he wrote:
“It’s coming through a whole in the air,
. . .
It’s coming from the feel
that it ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.”
(That’s all I got. I don’t know if I got the point across at all, or if I’m being far too sentimental. But I had to try.)