(HOST) Author and commentator Gretchen Gerzina is Chair of the English Department at Dartmouth, who has extensively researched – and written about – the African American experience. Today she is thinking about Martin Luther King Jr, Barak Obama, and her own grandparents.
(GERZINA) When my parents married in 1947, their marriage was illegal in twenty states. My father’s black family raised no objections, but my mother’s parents were deeply worried. My white grandfather, a prominent Congregationalist minister, sent my mother to another minister who tried to talk her out of it. In his letters to her, my grandfather begged her not to marry my father. If they insisted on marrying, he begged them not to have children. If they chose to bring children into the world, he advised them to move to another country, like Brazil, or move to Hawaii, where he believed that biracial children might have a lesser chance of persecution.
My grandparents of both races lived in a world that is almost unimaginable to young people today. Last November, the morning after Barack Obama was elected to the 44th presidency, I tried to paint a picture of that earlier world to my students. I told them that the first newspaper article that I tried to read by myself was about Emmett Till. I was shocked by the photographs that accompanied it. Till was f the adolescent boy murdered by men who accused him of whistling at a white woman. Even though the men admitted to the torture and murder they were acquitted. The bravery of Till’s bereaved mother showed when she insisted upon an open casket at his funeral in Chicago. It was the first time that the horrors of racism became widely visible to white people around the world. And it helped to spark the outrage and restraint that marked the multiracial – and multigendered – Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
A year after Dr. King’s death in 1968, I applied to college in Vermont and asked the admissions officer what sort of life I might expect to have here. His response was a proud recitation of Vermont’s history in the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. However it took me decades to learn that black people had been among the state’s earliest settlers. They too carved out homesteads, attended town meetings, and in some cases as far back as the eighteenth century, had interracial marriages and biracial children. Some of them are no doubt the forgotten ancestors of white Vermonters today.
Early American families, just like my own ancestors-white and black-could not imagine a time when a biracial man would be elected our president. In my lifetime, they could barely imagine a time when black people in all parts of the country could register to vote, let alone a time when white voters would vote for a black man. Like his predecessor, Dr. King, whose birthday we celebrate alongside this historic inauguration, our new president demonstrates how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, and the hope that makes this possible.
My grandparents too must have understood some of this. When my parents finally married, two ministers stood before them to conduct the ceremony. One was a black clergyman. The other was my white grandfather, wishing them – as we do the new president tomorrow – godspeed.