Several weeks ago, when Barack Obama gave his ground breaking speech about race relations in this country, his words to me were Balm in Gilead. Finally, one of our political leaders was actually talking about race. But the real beauty of Mr.Obama's speech wasn't only that he was talking about race, he was also showing us how to talk about race.
Mr. Obama talked about his mother, his preacher, his grandmother. He told the story of race in America by telling us his own personal story of the complex people in his life who had influenced him.
By talking about his experience as a man with a white mother and an African father, Barack Obama gave us all permission to talk about race and our experience of race. Permission to tell our stories.
. . .
Let me tell you about my mother, my preacher, my grandmother.
Once when my mother and father came to visit I took them to the Grotto, a huge Catholic installation in honor of the Virgin on the way to the airport. I spent the day walking through the beautiful gardens with mom and dad, and kneeling and genuflecting and praying with them in the chapel. When we got in the car and were on our way home, I asked my mom what she had thought of the Grotto.
All she said was. “Where did all the Japs come from?”
My father often bragged of the night in his youth when he and his friend Urban abducted a Black man from one of the bars in Blackfoot, threw a gunny sack over his head, hog tied him, threw the man in the back of a pickup, and told the man that they were going to lynch him. They took him up in to the hills and beat him. My father always ended his story by laughing and telling us “how scared that nigger was.” Then he'd say, “Of course we let him go. But you should have seen him running around with that gunny sack still on him, running into trees. We laughed our asses off.”
Now you all might think this is a novelist's desire to spin a good yarn, but I promise you that every part of the stories I just told you is true.
Yet, when I told my father I was gay and that I had AIDS, I don't think it ever crossed his mind to disown me.
Yet it was only just before my father died that my sister told me my father didn't believe I got AIDS from having sex with men. I got AIDS, my father believed, because in 1969, at my first chance to leave my home town, I went three thousand miles away to Kenya. That's where Tom got AIDS. When Tom was in the Peace Corps in Africa.
Black Africa—the place that embodied my father's deepest fear.