Today, as I watch Barack Obama place his left hand – that I shook eight months ago – on the bible of Abraham Lincoln to take the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States of America, I’ll be thinking back to a childhood friend in Louisville and 10 words that have haunted me in the 33 years since he spoke them to me:
"God must not love me because he made me black," he said sobbing as he fell to the ground as though deflated by lack of hope. We'd been arguing as all boys do at times. Pushing each other, calling each other names. At some point, he made me really mad and I tried to hurt him -- with words ... one word ... one I'd heard way too many times and always filled with hate. I called him the "N" word.
He burst into a rage and we both swung our fists like crazy at each other. He was mad as hell and I was surprised -- surprised I'd hurt my friend so badly. I didn’t know this word could hurt him this badly. After I fell to the ground and pleaded, "OK, stop! You win. I'm sorry!," he fell to the ground beside me and started to cry.
"Why are you crying? You beat ME up?" I asked. That's when I heard those 10 words he spoke: "God must not love me because he made me black." I felt awful. I wanted to take it back and go after any one who had ever made him feel like less of a person just because of the color of his skin. It was 1976 – the country’s bicentennial – and helped me realize how much further this country had to grow in my lifetime. I vowed then to never use that word again in my life. I never have in the 33 years since then.
It's not just a word. It's like the confederate flag or a KKK hood and robe -- a symbol of so much hate and prejudice and ignorance. It represents to too many stolen hope and unattainable change.
So causes that have meant the most to me involved enhancing civil rights and equal rights ... pursuit of truth and justice ... and reducing racism and sexism and other discrimination.
I'm proud that my 8-year-old son went to a child care center where there were families from many different races, countries, religions, and combinations -- mixed race couples, and couples with two Moms or two Dads. Nobody was treated differently; nothing turned a judgmental head.
He knows that it's OK to be different and that you would never think less of a person because of the color of their skin, their gender, or anything else about them other than their character and choices. He was a Hillary supporter, though, as I became the day after John Kerry lost ... and up until the Iowa caucus proved that YES, HE COULD! My son's rationale for remaining a Hillary supporter up until the end of the primaries was that it's not fair that all of our presidents have been men.
"We've never had a woman as president," he said. I pointed out that we'd also never had a black (or half black and half white) president. And he responded: "Yea, but that's just the color of his skin. That's no big deal.
People come in all sorts of colors. But women, they're like a whole different SPECIES."
OK, I'll keep working on that part of his sensitivity and understanding. But he may be on to something there ... just with the wrong choice of words. ;-)
During each of my son's life, I have thought back to when I was his age. This past year, I realized he was close to the age when I last used that awful word and discovered how much it truly hurt my friend -- truly worse than any stick or stone could have hurt him.
When I heard Barack Obama on television speak the first time in 2004 at the convention, I thought of my young friend from elementary school who thought when he was not much older than my son now, "NO, HE COULDN'T" (that even God was against him) and I hoped he was hearing those inspiring words from this remarkable African American man who I knew, by the end of that speech, would (or at least should) become president some day.
The weekend before the Ohio primary in 2008, when I shook hands with Obama at a Columbus area high school near where I live, I thought of my friend and wished he was there to see this ... and so I could push him toward the aisle closer to where he might get to shake Obama's hand instead.
When I was at an Obama volunteer headquarters on election night November 5 after the polls were closed and we confirmed there were no lines at any of our precincts where we might need to rush water bottles and snacks, a preacher got us all in a circle to pray, and I wished my friend could be there -- to see these passionate, dedicated people of all colors joining hands to make a difference and bring change ... and now joining hands to tearfully ask God to look over our country and our new leader and help us all unify and bring the change we'd worked so hard.
When Barack Obama becomes president, I hope my friend is watching. And, if he still has any inkling of that feeling from 33 years ago, I hope it fades into the past forever.
To my childhood friend, whose skin was darker than mine but whose heart and soul and mind were filled with even more light, God does love you:
YES, SHE DOES.