My Turn: Free at last? Not yet
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child – a long way from home,” – Richie Havens, Woodstock, 1969
Sometimes, when I am overwhelmed by the ugliness of disenfranchisement and racism that still roils some parts of this nation, I feel a long way from home – a long way from the promise of the land my parents immigrated to and loved and where they raised their children.
I have a confession: Fifty years ago some friends urged me to join them for the March on Washington. I turned them down: I had a date. She was hot and, besides, what did an event in Washington for black people have to do with me?
Everything, it turns out. I don’t remember my date, but I’ll never forget being at home watching the march on TV and being deeply moved by the passion of the marchers, the eloquence of the speakers, and their belief that America could overcome injustice and prejudice.
“Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.” – Richie Havens
Sometimes, when following the news, I try to imagine the pain of those who, having struggled for freedom, for dignity, for the right to claim their own humanity, now have to face resurgent racism on American soil – soil once bloodied so that all could be free.
Now, as I witness the rise of this new American racism meme – cynically designed to gain political advantage, I fear that the promise of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” is in jeopardy.
“Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.”
Recently, a rodeo clown wearing an Obama mask appeared in Sedalia, Mo. He seemed to have a broomstick inserted up his backside – imagery not lost on the spectators who cheered as another clown called out, “Ya big goober,” before releasing a bull to charge at the clown with the Obama mask and a broomstick up his rectum.
“Yahoo! We’re gonna smoke Obama.”
“Yahoo!” Fifty years after the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
“Yahoo!” Fifty years after the March on Washington.
“Yahoo!” Five years after America elected Barack Obama president.
Now, 50 years later and, sadly, five years deep into Obama’s presidency, racial division is being deployed as a political tool in an attempt to disenfranchise people of color, the poor and the disadvantaged. In advance of 2042 when, as the U.S. Census Bureau reports, minority groups will become a majority of America, many among America’s privileged white population, fearing displacement from their dominant position, are using lies, subterfuge and fear to try and consolidate power.
While free speech is a cherished American right, and should not be impinged upon, and while presidents can and should be subject to satire and ridicule, there is a line between ridicule, which all presidents endure, and racism, which is intolerable and should be condemned.
And there is a line between the pure racism of the rodeo clown and the new cynical evocations of Jim Crow designed to separate Americans.
Obama’s burden is greater in many ways than the one borne by his predecessors because of those who deny his legitimacy and conflate naked racism and Islamophobia to portray him as un-American – a burden inflicted by opponents who refuse to cooperate with his administration on vital national issues. All presidents face crises but none faced such unrelenting, visceral bigotry.
Obama has been opposed at nearly every step of his presidency by obstructionist politicians unwilling to give him credit for anything.
Five years into Obama’s presidency they deny he saved America from a Great Depression, that he rescued America’s auto industry, and that he ended a failed war in Iraq and is about to end a second in Afghanistan. Five years into Obama’s presidency, they deny the reality that affordable health care has been extended to all Americans. They deny that the United States, the last of the industrialized nations to provide health care protection to all her citizens, was finally doing the right thing.
Recently, former New Hampshire House speaker Bill O’Brien said, “And what is Obamacare? It is a law as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.”
Daniel Webster, historically one of New Hampshire’s favorite sons, supported the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act that called for the capture and return of runaway slaves to their masters. He was justly attacked by abolitionists and citizens of conscience, including by James Russell Lowell, who called Webster, “the most meanly and foolishly treacherous man I ever heard of.”
O’Brien is no favorite son. He’s on the side of the delegitimizers and on the wrong side of history – on the wrong side of justice.
Today, the most mean, foolish and treacherous of politicians are uniting, not to celebrate the promise of America but to try and divide into two dystopian worlds – the privileged and the other.
On a recent visit to Phoenix, Ariz., the president was greeted by signs that read, “Bye-Bye Black Sheep,” and “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!” The privileged and the other.
To advance their narrow vision of America, a new front has been opened based on the false charge of in-person voter election fraud. Even assuming that more stringent voter-ID laws would assure that in-person voter fraud was zero, such laws don’t justify the draconian broad-based attack on rights being mounted by some Republicans and conservatives and their Tea Party cohorts.
This attack on how, when, where and who can vote – the restrictions on days, hours, places and voter eligibility, cannot be justified on the basis of franchise protection. They can only be described as suppression: the suppression of the votes of blacks, the poor, Hispanics, the aged and infirm and students – those constituencies that voted for Obama and need to be punished.
Because we live in privilege and comfort, we are compelled by our good fortune to carry a “Gospel of freedom,” beyond our hearths and into the public square and polling booths: We are compelled to demand justice. If you don’t condemn the new racism, then you condone it. If you are silent about voter suppression, then you are complicit.
Free at last? Free at last?
Not everyone – not yet.
(Robert Azzi is a writer and photographer living in Exeter. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)