A Talk About Race

The driver leaning against a black sedan straightened his tie. The well-dressed man and his associate exited the building. Smoke from the running engine pushed past the towers of snow piled on the curb. The driver brushed away a speck of ice from his wool coat. In the white-out of the frost-covered ground, he squinted. When a group of reporters appeared at the corner and rushed toward the candidate, the driver was quick to open the passenger door.

A number of excited voices rose above a hoard of flashing cameras “Have you always entertained racist views against white people?” one reporter asked.

“Do you agree that America is a “#1 killer?”

“Are all white people destined to be damned and not blessed?”

The candidate pulled his hat down and his collar up and kept his expression blank. Any one of them might be planning to pair a photo of his frown with an incendiary headline, and he didn’t want to help them misrepresent. The associate led the man through the crowd and over a mound of snow. The contender ducked inside. The driver was about to close the door when a writer threw out a question that caught the campaigner’s attention.

“How is it that you still refuse to talk about race?”

“Would you describe this as talking about race?” he asked, gesturing to the journalists that were pushing each other and calling out loaded questions. The woman-writer nodded as the door closed.

The car shifted and pulled into the street. The cool, leather seat prompted the candidate to pull his coat closer to his chest.  “I’m supposed to talk about race. At the height of our campaign. Somehow, it’s my job. To talk about the most divisive topic in America,” he thought bitterly. The tires sloshed against the wet pavement. “I’m supposed to talk about race,” he thought, frowning as he pulled his phone from his pocket.

“Poll numbers are down,” he read.

“We’re losing suburban voters.”

“The year’s gains are gone.”

The sun ducked behind a building. As a shadow moved along the floor of the car, the man warmed his hand by the vent. The hot air from the heater and the sunbeam that poured in through the windshield made him sleepy. They passed into a tunnel and turned onto a highway. To the swish of the passing cars, the candidate leaned back. While drifting off, he saw his mother in his mind’s eye in the kitchen of his childhood home.

The pat of butter in the frying pan sizzled as he waited at the table for his mother’s blueberry pancakes that morning. In her pink dress and with her hair up in a customary bun, she looked pretty as she turned to him. With a spatula in one hand and a gallon of milk in the other, she smiled. “I don’t think that I ever told you that story about your father, did I?”

He shook his head and licked his lips at the bottle of syrup on the counter.

“You know the place that we went to for my birthday last year? Helena’s Luau? Well, your grandfather, your father, and a couple of their friends met up there one night,” she closed the refrigerator door. “The way your grandfather tells it, they were having a good time. They had just finished their finals and were eating Poi and Haupia and drinking beer.

“Then, out of nowhere, they heard this insult from a white man, sitting at the bar. In a voice, you know, that the whole restaurant could hear, this landowner snarled, ‘I shouldn’t have to drink good liquor next to a nigger,’ the white guy said.

“With your father being the only dark-skinned person there, everyone looked at him, waiting to see what he was going to do. Your dad took a breath. With that sermon in mind – about turning the other cheek – you remember that one, honey? With the idea of forgiveness in mind, your father approached the white guy at the bar.

“No one knows exactly what your father said, but he must’ve begun with a topic that they both understood because it wasn’t long before the white guy invited your father to join him. I’m pretty sure that your father got into his favorite subject, the universal rights of man, and then, of course, the topic of his last paper, The American Dream. 

“At some point, I just know that he spoke about you, sweetie, and about your hopes and aspirations. By the end of the night, the white man ended up paying for your dad’s drinks, his dinner and even sent him home with enough money to cover his rent,” she explained, placing a stack of pancakes on the table.

The sedan jolted. The candidate opened his eyes as the car entered a parking garage. The long, circular path made the man feel queasy. He glanced at his phone and tightened his lips. The man didn’t want to talk about race and didn’t view himself as a representative of race. He always sought to be judged by his merits. He didn’t feel like an authority on the subject and didn’t think his experiences reflected the average person’s experience.

The man followed his associate through the entrance and down several long corridors. In his hotel room, the contender tossed his phone to the bed and opened the drapes. Out the window, streaks of light from the lamps projected rainbows into the dark night. The snow flurries that glittered in the air landed on a sparkling, crystalized pavement. The candidate pulled his notepad from his briefcase. At the table, he sighed, knowing that he had no choice but to talk about race.

That night, Obama penned the first draft of “A Perfect Union”. Three days later, he gave the speech to a football field full of eager faces. As his father had with the white man at the bar, he began with an idea that the whole nation embraced. Obama paired personal anecdotes with a presentation of history, and like his father, spoke about the Universal Rights of Man, The American Dream, and his daughter’s hopes and aspirations.

As he left the stage, the hungriest journalists held themselves back. Instead of kicking their colleagues and pushing themselves to the front of the line, they remained still and reflected on their roles as distractors and instigators. The next day, the country was calm. The concerns of many were quieted. Poll numbers went up.  Contributions poured in, and for a short while, a divided country listened.

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