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Today's Reading

Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a nice meditation on Madelyn and Stanley Dunham:

I was looking at this picture of Obama's grandparents and thinking how much he looks like his grandfather. And suddenly, for whatever reason, I was struck by the fact that they had made the decision to love their daughter, no matter what, and love their grandson, no matter what. I'd bet money that they never even thought of themselves as courageous, that they didn't give much thought to the broader struggles in the the world at the time. They were just doing what right, honorable people do. But the fact is that, in the 60s, you could be disowned for falling in love with a black woman or black man. There is a reason why we have a long history of publicly biracial black people, but not so much of publicly biracial white people.

We often give a pass to racists by noting that they were "of their times." Fair enough, and I know Hawaii was a different beast, but still, today, let us speak of people who were ahead of their times, who were outside of their times. Let us remember that Barack Obama learned the great lessons of life from courageous white people. Let us speak of those who do what  normal, right people should always do when faced with a child--commit an act love. Here's to doing the right thing.

That's a point that can't be made often enough. And it prompted me to look again at a passage in Dreams from My Father that Obama wrote about his grandparents--and their views on race--that's striking for its lack of gooey sentimentality and yet, at the same, its abiding love. After recounting his grandfather's story of how angry he was that his daugther--Obama's mother--had been castigated for playing with a black child when the family lived in Texas, Obama writes:

It's hard to know much weight to give these episodes, what permanent allegiances were made or broken, or whether they stand out only in the light of subsequent events. Whenever he spoke to me about it, Gramps would insist that the family left Texas in part because of their discomfort with such racism. Toot [Obama's grandmother] would be more circumspect; once, when we were alone, she told me that they had moved from Texas only because Gramps wasn't doing particularly well on his job, and because a friend in Seattle had promised him something better. According to her, the word racism wasn't even in their vocabulary back then. "Your grandfather and I just figured we should treat people decently, Bar. That's all."

She's wise that way, my grandmother, suspicious of overwrought sentiments or overblown claims, content with common sense. Which is why I tend to trust her account of events; it corresponds to what I know about my grandfather, his tendency to rewrite history to conform with the image he wished for himself.

And yet I don't entirely dismiss Gramps's recollection of events as a convenient bit of puffery, another act of white revisionism. I can't, precisely because I know how strongly Gramps believed in his fictions, how badly he wanted them to be true, even if he didn't always know how to make them so. After Texas I supsect that black people became a part of these fictions of his, the narrative that worked its way through his dreams. The condition of the black race, their pain, their wounds, would in his mind become merged with his own: the absent father and the hint of scandal, a mother who had gone away, the cruelty of other children, the realization that he was no fair-haired boy--that he looked like a "wop." Racism was part of that past, his instincts told him, part of convention and respectability and status, the smirks and whispers and gossip that had kept him on the outside looking in.

Those instincts count for something, I think; for many white people of my grandparents' generation and background, the instincts ran in an opposite direction, the direction of the mob. And although Gramps's relationship with my mother was already strained by the time they reached Hawaii--she would never quite forgive his instability and often-violent temper and would grow ashamed of his crude, ham-fisted manners--it was this desire of his to obliterate the past, this confidence in the possibility of remaking the world from whole cloth, that proved to be his most lasting patrimony. Whether Gramps realized it or not, the sight of his daughter with a black man offered at some deep unexplored level a windown into his own heart.

It's Obama's point about the importance of believing in our fictions that sticks with me. If he wins the White House, many people will say that this country has turned a corner, that it has put the ugly spectre of race behind it, and that, of course, won't be true. But the fact that we'll want to believe that it's true isn't unimportant.

--Jason Zengerle