Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 03:01 pm
Thanksgivings past spur thoughts on race, present and future
“Mrs. Obama … do you realize that when your husband becomes the next president of the
United States, it will be historical?”
“Why yes, I understand that. What does that mean to you?”
“It means I can imagine anything for myself.”
An exchange between Michelle Obama and a 10-year-old Ohio girl during the 2008 presidential campaign, as recounted by Richard Wolffe in his book, Renegade.
The following is excerpted from my Thanksgiving 2008 IT column:
Little of my family’s Thanksgiving celebrations have changed throughout my entire life, largely because we’re a relatively small group: my mom and I are both only children, and my dad wasn’t close to his family, so there weren’t troops of relatives vying over who’d host the dinner or what to contribute to the feast. Occasionally there would be guests, but as often as not it was just my parents, my grandparents and me throughout my childhood and adolescence. Eventually my husband and then three children were added. (Now two of their spouses and two grandchildren are in the mix when they can make it home.) But the only really drastic change was when Thanksgiving moved to my home after my grandmother passed away. At Nana’s the menu was written in stone, and the decorations, china, etc. never varied. Thanksgiving wasn’t a time for experimenting with another kind of stuffing, or flirting with a different dessert. That might sound boring, but it never felt that way – the tradition made it special.
Having Thanksgiving at my house seemed strange at first, but we’ve become used to it. And even though the location is different, much has stayed the same. The core menu is still written in stone, though it now includes vegetarian variations for my daughter and son-in-law when they’re here.
There have been only four Thanksgivings we took our celebration on the road. But even for those we’ve managed to keep much of that written-in-stone tradition intact. The first was in 1963. At the time it had an almost surreal feeling; 50 years later it still seems so.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that first Thanksgiving road trip since the recent election. It was an uneasy, scary time. President Kennedy had been assassinated just days before, and suddenly our safe, secure country didn’t seem all that safe and secure. America’s bubble of unbounded optimism had burst. I was 10; old enough to understand what had happened, but too young to realize all the implications; the grim faces and hushed tones of the adults around me were frightening.
Things were different at home, too. My dad was a career National Guardsman: it was his full-time job. He’d been sent to Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., for a year’s schooling. Military families typically move frequently, but because my dad was a National Guard electronics specialist, the longest he’d ever been gone from home was an annual summer three-week camp.
For our Georgian Thanksgiving he’d rented a motel cabin with a small kitchen. I’m quite sure that the idea of going to a restaurant never entered anyone’s mind.
I don’t know if JFK’s assassination was the reason my grandmother decided to bring everything she could to make Thanksgiving as much like home as possible. Probably not. This was a woman who’d bring her own eggs in a carry-on for a flight to Florida. Buying store eggs to cook in their vacation condo was unthinkable. But recreating our traditional Thanksgiving hundreds of miles away must have become even more important in those dark days.
Even though we were looking forward to seeing my dad, we were a somber-faced quartet as we began packing the station wagon for our trip south. There were coolers filled with food – the turkey, of course, but also frozen corn, lima beans and spinach, all from our garden. There was stale bread, onions, celery and sausage for the stuffing. There were sweet potatoes (because, of course, there aren’t sweet potatoes in Georgia). There were ingredients to make pie crusts and fillings. There were pots and pans, a roaster and utensils.
That was just the beginning. We loaded Nana’s antique Haviland china, crystal goblets, sterling flatware and candlesticks, and a starched linen tablecloth and napkins. By the time everything was loaded, my grandfather realized he’d have to rely on the side mirrors, because the back was filled to the roof; my mom and I had to squeeze in between piles on the back seat.
The car trip continued the uncomfortable ambience that had pervaded our packing. My grandfather had many sterling qualities, but patience wasn’t one of them. He’d begun muttering under his breath while loading the car; once we started, he took out his frustrations (only verbally, thankfully) on other drivers. Mom’s turns at the wheel made things even worse; he was a dreadful back-seat driver. Late at night things became surreal. A thick fog hovered over twisting two-lane roads that wound through the Appalachians. A hellfire and brimstone preacher on the radio, the first I’d ever heard, thundered threats of eternal damnation. Peering out the window, I’d see wrecked cars in the valleys below whenever there was a break in the fog, making the preacher’s rantings even scarier.
Early the next day we had a joyful reunion with my dad. Then everyone pitched in to set things up and make dinner, working in the tiny kitchen and on a folding table in the sunny, warm outdoors. Except for our surroundings, it really was the same as Thanksgiving at home. Every November since, someone brings up those memories, and we laugh at ourselves for having been crazy enough to haul all that stuff all that way.
But since Election Day, I’ve been thinking about other parts of that trip: visits to Southern rest stops, restaurants and other public areas. I remember the “Whites Only” and “No Coloreds Allowed” signs. I remember asking my mom about those signs – I’d never seen anything like them at home. I remember her explaining what they meant and saying, “But it’s not going to be this way much longer. Things are about to change.”
In a way, I’m glad to have seen those signs. They made racism and discrimination real to me in a way that reading or hearing about it secondhand never could have.
* * *
I supported Obama in 2008, even journeying to Chicago on Election Day with my mom to be a part of that incredible night. My enthusiasm for Obama was based on many factors, but was neither because or in spite of his race. But I was glad America had progressed enough to elect an African-American to the presidency.
Even so, my racial beliefs were largely theoretical. I’d grown up in a mostly white world. My earliest memory is my grandfather literally throwing his brother-in-law off our property during a family picnic for saying “Niggers are only good for cleaning latrines.” But my family weren’t Civil Rights activists. And though I’ve had several African-American friends and acquaintances over the years, the basis of our friendships and interactions has been mostly a common interest in music, and classical music at that.
My beliefs became personal on Dec. 6, 2010: the moment I first held my grandson, a 10-day-old African-American adopted by my daughter and son-in-law.
“We cannot imagine anything more remarkable and marvelous than having a stranger put into your arms who becomes, in minutes, your flesh, your blood: your life.” From Baby, We Were Meant For Each Other, a book about adoption by Scott Simon, host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition.”
Simon got it right. There wasn’t a split second of Robbie seeming like “the other” to me. But the next day, I realized my perspective had unconsciously changed. Brooklyn is a melting pot; there’s probably nowhere else in America more comfortable to have a “blended” family. As I walked to the grocery store, it was obvious that a middle-aged white woman pushing a black baby in a stroller wasn’t even remotely unusual.
But pushing Robbie’s stroller, I also remembered those 1963 signs – and that some of my children’s friends’ parents in Springfield were still making racial jokes and jabs. I realized Robbie would inevitably sometime face such comments, both overt and subtle. And in some small measure, I understood the frustration and rage African-American parents/grandparents must feel/have felt with the bone-deep knowledge that their beloved children were kept from fulfilling their capabilities.
Robbie turns two Saturday. He’s the most personable, effervescently bubbly baby-now toddler I’ve ever known (including my own children); able to “work a room” since he could walk. He’s also incredibly music-savvy; able to accurately imitate drum rhythms as well as humming Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik overture on pitch.
I supported Obama this year; again not because or in spite of his race. But this time, the knowledge that Obama’s victory will help make it possible for Robbie to imagine anything for himself was the best of all.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.