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Saturday, November 1, 2008

"Why Does Grandma Wear Dark Glasses?": My Family & the 2008 Election

Last night, during nightly bedtime snuggle time with my 4-1/2-year-old son, Jason asked me, “Why does Grandma wear dark glasses?”

Grandma and Grandpa are much on Jason’s mind. He’s looking forward to flying on an airplane this weekend to see them in Quincy, Florida, twenty-one miles west of Tallahassee---along with my sisters and Jason’s uncles and cousins. We are traveling from Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta to gather to watch the election returns as a family. That’s how important Barack Obama’s candidacy is to us.

And the story of Grandma’s dark glasses is one of the reasons why.

My mother, Patricia Stephens Due, spent 49 days in jail in 1960 for ordering food at a Woolworth in Tallahassee, becoming part of the nation’s first Jail-in. Soon afterward, she and other Florida A&M University students took part in a peaceful march to protest the jailing of their classmates, and a police officer lobbed a canister of tear-gas into my mother’s face and eyes. She was 20 years old. It was 1960.

Both of my parents wear the scars of the civil rights movement. But my mother’s are so easy to see that even my preschooler noticed.

“Well…” I said, “when grandma was very young—younger than your sister, Nicki---she and other students were marching together. Hundreds of them…” I told him what I could. Some of it will have to wait. But I did tell him that Grandma had something called “tear-gas” thrown in her face.

“It makes your eyes hurt. And her eyes have been hurting a little bit ever since, so she wears dark glasses even inside the house, when there’s no sun. Even when there isn’t much light.”

I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the story behind my mother’s dark glasses, but I was about Jason’s age when I covered myself with baby powder after I was refused admission to several segregated Montessori schools in Miami. I tried to make myself white. “Will they let me go to school now?” I said.

I can only imagine how my parents felt trying to explain skin color and how it might dictate my place in the world—especially after all they had been through! Countless protests, arrests, court dates, sit-ins, a Jail-in and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had not been enough. Their black child was not welcome at those schools.

I wrote about growing up in a civil rights household in the book I co-authored with my mother, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. My father, John Due, is a civil rights attorney who defended Dr. King in St. Augustine in 1964 and dedicated much of his life to community organizing in Miami.

I have observed little changes—all those “firsts”—my whole life. And I had no illusions about how those changes came about. It wasn’t by magic or coincidence. In the words of Frederick Douglass, whom I quoted in oratorical contests as a child, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress... Power concedes nothing without a demand: It never did, and it never will.”

There is something unmistakably clear about the election of a black man to the highest office in the nation, ringing all the way back to the founders who argued over the abolition of slavery. And for activists like my parents who have felt sorrowed by lingering poverty, educational gaps and the incarceration rate in the black community, President Barack Obama is a strong counter-point.

He also happens to be an extraordinary candidate. Period.

When he is elected Tuesday---sorry, I can’t bring myself to say IF---Barack Obama will breathe life and hope into Americans of all ages who wonder if the American Dream is real or just spin. And to Jason, who woke up one morning this week chanting, “Obama! Obama! Obama!” and who once insisted on going to bed in a tie and dress shirt so he would look like Obama…

Let’s just say it’s a far cry from what happened to me when I was 4.

It’s healing.

My talk with Jason about my mother’s dark glasses didn’t carry nearly the sting it would have if a different world was waiting for Jason outside of the safety of his bedroom.

Still, I’m not naïve: I know that many American families still don’t have reason to believe that their children’s futures are safe. I know that teachers and police officers might still make assumptions about Jason because of his race. But it will be different than what has been.

Different how? I can’t say. I don’t even know how it will feel to stand on the other side of Inauguration Day in January. Or to see a family take residence in the White House that will remind me so much of my own.

But I’m eager to find out.

Jason will be too young on Tuesday to understand exactly what he is experiencing. No matter how many stories I tell him about our family history, he will never understand what it was like to walk in his grandparents’ shoes. Or his father’s. Or in mine.

But he will KNOW from the dawn of his waking awareness that he is a full citizen of the nation of his birth, and that no goal should lie beyond his precious imagination. And I will not flinch from telling him the unhappy stories, because I want him to understand how we arrived here. That he and Barack Obama are standing on his grandparents’ shoulders.

“I’m going to tell Grandma to make her glasses LIGHT,” Jason said after my bedtime story, as if the answer was that simple.

Tuesday, I can’t wait for my son and his grandparents to see the light come in.


All parties at my parents’ house have music—and some, like the ones on Dr. King’s birthday, have speeches too. Here’s a partial playlist I suggest if you’re having an Election Watching party.

These suggestions are in no particular order.

**We Are Family (Sister Sledge)

**For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield)

**Balm in Gilead (Sweet Honey in the Rock)

**Celebration (Kool & the Gang)

**Let’s Stay Together (Al Green)

**Walk With Him (The Highway Q’s)

**Seteng Sediba (Soweto Gospel Choir)

**This Little Light (The Montgomery Improvement Association: Sing for Freedom: Civil Rights Movement Songs)

**Respect (Aretha Franklin)

**I Got the Feelin’ (James Brown)

**Love Train (The O’Jays)

**You Gotta Be (Des’ree)

**This is How We Do It (Montell Jordan)

I also suggest the following inspirational speeches, which have particular power at this point in history. (They’re sprinkled within my own playlist! The excerpts below are VERY short and edited, with the exception of Obama’s 2004 address.)

** I Have a Dream (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: I Can Hear it Now: The Sixties, narrated by Walter Cronkite.)

*Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You: Ask What You Can Do for Your Country (John F. Kennedy: I Can Hear it Now: The Sixties.)

**Decides to Run for President (Robert Kennedy: I Can Hear it Now: The Sixties)

**Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention Address


Tom Hayes, the Synergist said...

That is a wonderful, hopeful story. Thank you. I think of my son as my gift to the future, and much of the work I have put into Obama's campaign is based on wanting the best possible future for my one precious son, and everybody else's children, too.

Here's another story I submit for your consideration, by and about Charles Alexander.

On Tuesday, we take part in a marvelous demonstration of democracy, the massive sharing of the experience of voting for our next President. We set aside the partisan rancor; the exaggerated posturing takes a breather, and we all go to the polls as one and we vote. On Tuesday, there are not red states and blue states despite the best efforts of the pundits to slice and dice us, there is only The United States.

Wear purple.

Althea said...

That was a beautiful, inspirational post. I wish I could be with my family tonight. But...I'm already emotional and I won't be able to vote until this afternoon.

This is a beautiful moment in American history. Tomorrow, I can tell my sons, who are the same lovely sandy-brown shade as Obama, that they really can be ANYTHING they want to be.

I look forward to electing the first woman president, first Latino/a president, first Asian president, first Native American president,first openly gay president...and I will enjoy the day when the firsts are over, and having a person of color or female running the country is no big deal.