A few factors have combined to make me reflect on race relations in this country, and also to make me hope andwonder if we’re entering a post-racial period.
First came Richard Wright’s classic Black Boy, about growing up black in Mississippi in the 1910s and 1920s. If I were better educated, I would have read this book before my current advanced age. But I haven’t, and it has just knocked me out. Wright provides an incredibly powerful portrayal of the tension of coping with the pandemic white violence of his South. He makes clear that the constant threat of violence undermined the personalities of black people, and their relatioinships.
It’s a terrible story, but then again, thing are actually better now. . . .
Just when I felt that I couldn’t stand reading about another ignorant, angry racist white Southerner, I turned back to a book I have slowly been making my way through, Michael Gardner’s Harry Truman and Civil Rights. Truman’s people in Missouri were slaveowners, and he came of age in the same era that Wright portrays so effectively. Yet when he became president, Truman tried his best make integration happen and to help black people. I particularly like this recollection by his Attorney General, later Supreme Court Justice, Tom Clark, who often got together with Truman for an evening of dinner and card-playing.
He would just — sometimes we’d get to talking and he would tell me about, how when he was growing up — about the discrimination against the blacks, and how they couldn’t get to first base, and everybody used them and things of that kind, you know. He was going to try to do something about it, that’s what he told me.
With a Congress dominated by Southern Democratic racists, Truman could not do as much he wanted, but he integrated the armed forces, established the Fair Employment Practices Commission for federal employees, and made conspicious appointments of black to important offices. A simple man who saw injustice and resolved to do what he could to stop it.
And I think about, of all things, the interview I saw during the television coverage of the Olympics. The star athlege being questioned was Shani Davis, men’s speedskating star for the United States, and also the first African-American to compete at the top levels of speedskating. I’ll admit it, it’s still surprising to me (though great) to see this tall, powerful black man striding around the ice rink, blowing away the competition.
The interviewer finally asked the race question — something like whether Davis felt like he was blazing trails for others, or that he had knocked down barriers, or something equally trite but totally on the minds of many viewers. And Davis shrugged and said, sure. But then he added that, well, once you have an African-American President, all these other barriers don’t seem like such a big deal.
I admired Davis’ ability to reframe the question, and appreciated that he had refocused me. Richard Wright’s world is gone, thank heavens. So, too, is Harry Truman’s. We have an African-American president. Current American citizens and residents have roots in an astonishing number of countries. It must be exhausting to be a white supremacist these days; there are so many different groups to feel superior to. Maybe the effort will finally become too great, and too obviously foolish. Call me pollyanna, but we really are closer to that day than we have ever been.