A Cornered Gurl
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A Cornered Gurl

The Circle Is Unbroken

You simply have to live long enough and look hard enough to see it

[Photo by Nima Izadi on Unsplash]

I remember standing in a crowded room way back when it didn’t matter whether you touched hands, fists, elbows, or cheeks. It was November 2008, in a downtown Greenville, South Carolina, club, and the hundreds gathered watched and waited, and then celebrated Barack Obama’s victory. I tried to explain to our daughters that this was a night I never thought would happen — a night for which I wouldn’t let myself hope too hard. And yet here it was, and here we were.

Celebrating. Rejoicing. A man with African heritage would be President of the United States of America. I know our daughters understood the importance of the equation. I know that they had also seen their share of prejudice and segregation, for even in the early 2000s, in public schools across our region, Black and White kids were still self-selecting whom they would sit with in the cafeteria, whom they would hang with at football games.

Hell, even at my small, church-related, liberal arts college, Black and White students who wanted to date each other did so off-campus. Way. Off. Campus. Or so I was told. I did see what was happening in our own central cafeteria and noted that the feathers flocking were the same hue in most cases.

Self-selecting is puzzling, yet aren’t most of my friends the same race as me?

But, as I’ve related to our daughters many times, while I was growing up in Alabama during the 1960s, there was no choice in selection unless that choice indicated the place many moved to in order to escape “forced busing.”

“Freedom of choice,” it was called, the mantra of all those following the lead of our elected officials like George Wallace, who mandated that little White children and little Black children would never mix in schools or anywhere else under his watch.

So I watched freedom of choice turn into something forced. The long-distance goal of social equality still seemed as distant and ephemeral as it ever had. I never thought I could bring home a Black friend even if I had one.

Then I married a woman born in Iran, a native Persian. Our daughters were born, and, a few years later after they started school, they would often invite their friends over to our home. And some, not the majority, but some of their friends were Black.

This felt something like progress — something like the way life should be. That was all before Obama. And so our daughters saw life from a different perspective, though I hoped and trusted that they appreciated mine as well as their mother’s. Our older daughter turned eighteen in 2008, and unless I am way off, she voted for Obama, twice. Our younger daughter got to vote in 2012, for Obama, I trust.

And then . . .

2016.

On the morning after, our younger daughter who, like me, voted for Hillary, called. “Is Mama going to be deported?”

“No sweetheart,” I said.

But really, I didn’t know.

Nothing is certain, except that if we live long enough, we understand that life isn’t lived linearly. It’s a circle, and despite hateful words and even worse actions, that circle can’t easily be broken.

Like many of you, I don’t know exactly what to do in these times of epidemic peril. Wash often. Keep plenty of coffee and oat milk on hand. Read. Write. Watch TV shows like Home Town, The Plot Against America, or Hunters. Listen to music, any music.

Maybe the keywords in that statement above are “Like many of you.” Here we are, despite our backgrounds, differences, or beliefs, trying to decide where to be, whom to touch, how to ensure that we and our most immediate loved ones are safe and healthy.

Sure, I’ve spouted bitter words since the pandemic began against willful people — against leaders who still think politics, ideologies, profits, and parties come first. But today, this moment, I am not feeling those past grudges, that current sense of rage against those who attach doomed amendments to congressional aid packages, or who sold stocks ahead of the panic.

Peace will come and find everyone, one way or another. Life settles life, and one thing I’ve learned is to be patient as those who don’t understand what’s important in life make their own discoveries in time. I’m not always patient, mind you, for learning, is ongoing, as is practicing what we learn.

Call it luck or fate or even “The Good Lord,” as my mother would say, but the book I selected to read a few mornings ago as fear and panic began sweeping all of us is The Broken Road.

Its author: Peggy Wallace Kennedy.

Now, I was born and raised in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s, so when I first heard of this book and saw its author’s name, I knew who she was even before I actually did.

With my Alabama roots, it’s hard not to hear the name “Wallace” without thinking of Alabama’s former, long-term governor (though actually, one of my oldest friends has the surname Wallace, too, and is no kin. I think of him often without any other association outside of him and me).

Peggy Wallace Kennedy is former Governor Wallace’s daughter. She’s actually doubly the daughter of Alabama governors, for her father George and her mother Lurleen both attained the state’s highest office.

A further strange note for Alabamians of my era is her last name, for back when George Wallace ran for governor the first and second times (1958 and 1962, losing and then winning), those who supported him in our state generally detested any prominent person named “Kennedy,” particularly if that person were a president, attorney general, senator, or generally from the state of Massachusetts.

For many Wallace supporters that I knew when I was a kid, President John F. Kennedy was nothing but a “nigger-lover.” In these days, they said such things directly to my child’s face. The same was said about Kennedy supporters and many others who ran against the Wallaces.

So Peggy Wallace Kennedy is something of an oddity, and anomaly, just in name alone. Her “Kennedy” was an Alabamian named Mark who became a state supreme court justice. Look him up, or better yet, just get a copy of The Broken Road, and read.

I promise it’s eye-opening, sometimes nauseating, occasionally so strange I had to pour more coffee and I already had a full cup, but ultimately so very healing. And maybe healing in the way we most need, as works that squarely face history can allow.

Those who know George Wallace lore naturally know about his stand in the schoolhouse door; his defiant “Segregation Now . . . and Forever” inauguration speech as he was sworn in as Alabama’s governor in January 1963. But before that infamous speech, and before he lost in 1958, he was seen as something of a liberal by Alabama standards. Wallace understood, however, that his opponent that year, John Patterson, won mainly because Patterson earned the support of racists and Klansmen. Wallace got with the program after that loss and never lost a governor’s race again.

And that includes the one in 1982 when he carried the African-American vote. He did so after speaking to the congregation at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Church, the same church where Dr. King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Wallace appeared unannounced (this was after he was shot and rendered paraplegic), and told the assembled people:

“I have learned what suffering means. I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for forgiveness” (Kennedy 210–11).

Accordingly, he was forgiven, went on to win that next election, and then appointed “160 African American Alabamians to state boards and agencies and doubled the number of black voter registrars in Alabama’s sixty-seven counties” (Kennedy 210–11).

This is history, and we can quarrel with many things Wallace said and did, but as we consider history, let’s consider all of it, or at least what we know of all of it, which means we have to keep reading and learning and knowing more so we can come close to a more whole story; so that we can then forgive and heal.

Which is what Peggy Wallace Kennedy has been trying to do.

Early in the book, as she visits her parents’ grave, she’s approached by an elderly white woman who recognizes her, hugs her, and tells her how much she loved both of Kennedy’s parents. Kennedy thanks the woman, and then:

“She leaned in to me with a conspiratorial whisper, ‘I never thought I would live to see the day when a black would be running for president. I know your daddy must be rolling over in his grave.’ Not having the heart or the energy to respond, I gave her bony arm a slight squeeze, turned, and walked away. As I put the remnants of the graveyard sprig in the trunk of my car, I assumed that she had not noticed my Obama bumper sticker” (6–7).

This was the first Obama election, and Peggy Wallace Kennedy voted the same four years later.

Perhaps, if her daddy had lived that long, he would have voted for Obama, too. That, though, is not history; still, at this moment when we all must come together even as we keep a safe distance, I’m going to believe it anyway.

I have seen so many changes in our society. My mother voted for Obama twice. But it’s not just voting that tests or shows one’s character (and I have many friends I love and respect who voted for Bush, McCain, and Romney).

Toward the end of her life, my mother, who once would not have liked it if I had brought home a Black friend, developed a warm and loving friendship with Helen, a woman who moved next door to her. They were good friends over the last five years of my mother’s life, meeting every day on their mutual property line where they both grew flowers and tropical plants. Several times a day they spoke by phone, and both helped organize their block to get out and vote for Doug Jones in 2017 when he beat Roy Moore for the US Senate.

Before my mother’s funeral, Helen was one of the last two people to pray with my mother.

God understands, even when we don’t, I think.

It’s the circle of life and death — part of a plan I don’t understand most of the time. But sometimes, in the glimmering of a midsummer’s light, I see it, clearly.

Like a rainbow.

And, in the end, whom or what could this unbroken, multi-hued circle possibly hurt?

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