Study in Contrasts

I encountered a study in contrasts yesterday.

‘The Promise’

First I read and listened to The New Yorker’s uplifting multi-media presentation “The Promise.” Despite the poor sound quality, the archive footage and the contemporary photos by Platon combine for a powerful experience. A few quick notes: Sad that Elaine Brown thinks she has “outlived herself.” The most moving images are of the Little Rock Nine as they are today, with two of them laughing about how when they visit now they can’t find a single person who opposed their admission in 1957.

David Remnick’s narrative successfully ties the past to the present with Barack Obama’s phone call to the Reverend Joseph Lowery requesting that he give the benediction at the inauguration. The uplift had a downbeat, of course, with the radical right claiming that Lowery, who marched and prayed for integration over all those years, was calling white people racist.

I wish they had showed more of Malcolm X’s daughters and their ability to transcend their father’s myth.

And my favorite image is of Charlayne Hunter-Gault, still gorgeous after all these years.

Black Leader in a “Sundown Town’

A more conflicted story unfolds in The Sunday Times Magazine. Nicholas Dawidoff tells  how an African American came to be elected to the Alabama state house from a district with almost no black voters, where the “sundown” signs didn’t come down until the 1970s, and where the Klan still threatens a black man who has the nerve to move into the town with a white woman.

Acknowledging that the Rev. James Fields is part of a trend, Dawidoff hedges his bets on its size since John McCain’s won the county by 88 percent. But Philadelphia, Mississippi, has elected a black mayor (also a minister). Another black man is making a serious bid to become governor of Alabama, though many people think he lacks the “just folks” touch that made Fields successful. With the support of George Wallace’s daughter, though, Artur Davis could go far.

Fields of course built his base almost from the day he first encountered white people. He was popular at the integrated school he attended and later gained the support of whites in his capacity as a state employee as he helped many of the county residents find jobs.

The most fascinating part of the article  was the split personalities of Fields’ constituents. They mostly still don’t like or trust black people and are quick with racist humor, but to them Fields isn’t black. “He’s one of us.” In a way they are experiencing the “double consciousness” that blacks always feel.

What’s happening with Fields is a major version of something I experienced years ago when a black Catholic family moved to Old Saybrook. One of my classmates said it was odd to see black people in her church. I said, well, I go when my uncle is in town. She replied, “Oh, that’s different. You’re you.” To her I wasn’t Liz the black girl; I was just Liz. I’ve had ambivalent feelings about that whole business since it happened, but at this point I’m thrilled to know the “one of us” phenomenon has moved south.

Maybe in another generation African Americans living there will achieve the real equality that the people in “The Promise” struggled for. And maybe black folks will feel less of the “double consciousness” that W. E. B. Du Bois described so eloquently in The Souls of Black Folk. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

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