When 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin went to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Sunday, it was not the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to meet the first black president. Such a president wasn’t a dream any reasonable black person born in the first half of the 20th century entertained.I can't begin to imagine what's she's seen of America in these past 100 or so years. I can say, though, she was already about 6 years old when Jelly Roll Morton first started publishing some of that new music called Jazz and she was 30 when Billie Holiday first performed Strange Fruit and 82 when Miles Davis passed away.
Ms. McLaurin was born in segregated South Carolina, the heart of the Old Confederacy, in 1909.
She was 46 when Emmett Till was murdered in a shed in Glendora, Mississippi, 54 when Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama and 59 the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was murdered on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
She was also 45 when Brown vs the Board of Education was decided, 55 when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed in to law and 56 when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.
In between there must've been countless moments of great joy and also great sadness. If she's 106 now and 55 when the Civil Rights Act was finally signed that means she's spent fewer years in a desegregated American than in a segregated one. Think about that: how many restaurants couldn't she eat in, how many water fountains or restrooms couldn't she use in this land of the free, the home of the brave?
And this week she said this when she met President Obama:
I thought I would never live to get in the White House. And I tell you, I am so happy. A black president! A black wife! And I'm here to celebrate black history. Yeah, that's what I'm here for.Another, different, video bubbled up onto my laptop this week. It's from the ABC comedy Black-ish (Wednesday Nights on ABC - check your local listings) and before we take a look at the video, let me post some context of the episode from which it's taken. The Johnson family is gathered around the TV to watch the news to see if a group of police officers will be indicted for shooting an unarmed black man. Rainbow ('Bow") Johnson (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) wants, in one way or another, to protect her two youngest children from the real horrors of the world. She wants her children to be safe when dealing with the police and to be safe they have to do whatever the police tell them to. Her husband Andre ("Dre" - played by Anthony Anderson), on the other hand, feels something different and they have this conversation:
DRE: Let's say they listen to the cops and get in the car. Look what happened to Freddie Gray.What hit me the hardest, I think, about that nearly two minutes of great drama tucked into an equally great half hour of sitcom was the realization about what I didn't feel when I saw the Obamas leaving that limo in 2009. I cried back then, proud at how much the nation had achieved even since I'd been born in 1963. But for all that proud and happy, I don't remember experiencing one sliver of the terror Dre and Bow Johnson obviously felt seeing the first black president so exposed. (Yes I realize the Andersons are fictional but as Picasso said, Art is the lie that makes us see the truth.) I do recall thinking that the Secret Service would have to be extra careful then now on but I had no worries, as they're the best at what they do. I was confident. The Andersons, obviously, were not.
POPS (Dre's father played by Laurence Fishburne): Yea and what if they make it all the way to the station? You remember Sandra Bland?
DRE: And let's say they do make it to trial. You see where that gets us. Don't you get it 'Bow? The system is rigged against us.
'BOW: Maybe it is, Dre. But I don't want to feel like my kids are living in a world that is so flawed that they can't have any hope.
DRE: Oh, so you wanna talk about hope, ‘Bow? Obama ran on hope. Remember when he got elected? And we felt like maybe, just maybe, we got out of that bad place and made it to a good place. That the whole country was really ready to turn the corner. You remember that amazing feeling we had during the inauguration? I was sitting right next to you. We were so proud. And we saw him, get out of that limo, and walk alongside of it, and wave to that crowd. Tell me you weren’t terrified when you saw that. Tell me you weren’t worried that someone was gonna snatch that hope away from us like they always do. That is the real world, ‘Bow. And our children need to know that that’s the world they live in.
This is not to say, of course, that I think that those who agree with Dre Anderson are somehow wrong. Or that Virginia McLaurin's dancing should some how appease the Anderson's fears. The two videos don't cancel each other out. If anything, they point out the complications and the contradictions of our not-quite post-racial society. They're all facets of the same reality we're all experiencing every day.
The same reality where, let's be honest, most of us didn't even think and furthermore didn't have any reason to think that hope could've been snatched away.
And sadly, those who do think that way have ample reason to believe it.