Wednesday, June 04, 2008

So Much for the Conventional Wisdom

Barak Obama is the Democratic nominee for president. His rise has been remarkable -- so remarkable that, in truth, I never expected to see what I saw last night. But the greatest gifts are the ones which seem impossible.

Almost forty years ago, I headed to the School of Education at the University of North Carolina. Early one Saturday morning, I was sitting at my desk (luckily, I had awakened early to study) when a key turned in my lock and in walked a black man -- mop in hand -- to clean my room. We were both surprised. I didn't expect janitorial service on Saturday; and he didn't expect a student in his room, since most students left their dorms to go home for the weekend. Because home for me was in Montreal, I spent my Saturday mornings -- before the library opened -- in my room.

It was on those Saturdays that I got to know Douglas McNeil. On that first Saturday, he called me "Mr. Gray" -- even though he was old enough to be my grandfather. And, what bothered me more, he couldn't look me in the eye. It had only been five years since the signs "Colored" and "White" had been removed from water fountains, restrooms and restaurants in the South. What I soon discovered was that the signs were still inside peoples' heads -- as they had been for generations.

Three months later -- as part of my training -- I began teaching at a high school in Greensboro. It had been fifteen years since the Supreme Court had ruled that school segregation was illegal. But the school I taught in had 2,200 students -- forty-eight of whom were black. Another high school, on the other side of town, had 1,600 students -- and there wasn't a white face among them. Still, when we needed a halfback for our football team, a transfer was easily arranged; and there was one less black face among the 1,600.

In fairness, efforts were being made to change things. The Greensboro schools were on the cusp of implementing a busing plan to achieve better racial balance; but opposition to the plan was building and becoming increasingly vocal. There was also an attempt to shift staff between schools -- at least for the purpose of professional development. I remember one lunch hour, when one of our teachers returned from the school on the other side of town, claiming that he had spent the morning "learning how to be a nigger."

There are times, even now, when I wonder if anything has changed. Watching newscasts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I had my doubts. And a month ago, on another BBC newscast, the correspondent interviewed a man from Georgia who was sporting a T-Shirt, the front of which displayed an image of a monkey eating a banana. He laughed and said, "I think his ears look just like Obama's." I keep hoping that people like him and my former faculty colleague are extinct. But, like some prehistoric fish from the ocean depths, they keep finding their way to the surface.

Be that as it may, what happened last night was not just historical. It gave one cause for optimism. Barack Obama has shattered the conventional wisdom -- and, whatever happens, the world will not be the same again.

Not that the rest will be easy. Some, like Gwynne Dyer, have concluded that "It is now a near certainty that Obama will be the next U.S. president." Maybe. But the really hard part is about to begin. As historical as last night was, history is not on Obama's side. And I fear that the architects of schlock are gearing up for a nasty and brutal campaign.

Time will tell the story of the upcoming presidential election. But this morning there is hope -- and I rejoice. And, somewhere, I know that Douglas McNeil is rejoicing, too.

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