U.S. Still Fighting the Same Old Battles Over Race, Identity

Human Rights

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the South (and let's face it, most of the rest of America) was still segregated in spite of Brown v. Board of Education and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, and when South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were still governed by apartheid, a small group of young Africans started coming to this country to go to college. Barack Obama's father was part of that wave, but it wasn't just exotic cosmopolitan places like Hawaii that received African students. The modest sized (150,000 population at the time), virtually all-white city I grew up in, Lincoln, Nebraska, had some come our way as well, and the arrival of a couple of these families was a central part of my childhood.

My dad and mom were the host family of two different African students from Rhodesia, who were brought to Lincoln with the support of our church. The first arrived around 1961 and the second around 1968. Both of the young men brought their wives with them, and one of them had a couple of children while here, while the second family came with two young ones.

It was an intense time in terms of racial politics in this country and around the world. Lincoln was a white enough city that I don't think my folks had ever been friends with a black person, and coming from highly segregated Rhodesia, I know that the Africans who arrived in Lincoln had never been friends with white people before either. The elementary school that I, and the children of those couples, attended had no other black children as far as I can remember. One of the most searing memories from my childhood was walking with the kids of the second family, the Chimonyos, to school. I was maybe10 or 11, the little girl Petonella was in kindergarten and the little boy Prayer was about 7, in 2nd grade I think. We would frequently hear catcalls of "nigger, nigger," and would get regular threats of being hit, or in a couple of cases having rocks thrown at us. I was not much of an athlete, so I didn't try to fight back, but I knew my parents would expect me to stand by those kids' side and hold their hands and comfort them when the bullies finally gave it up.

I am thinking on all this because 20 years ago today, my father died of cancer at the absurdly young age of 60. He would have been amazed at the world we're living in -- Mandela was freed the year after his death, South African apartheid was finally ended, and most amazing of all, we actually have the son of one of the wave of African student who came to this country as president. The immigrants from third world countries who started arriving here in bigger numbers in the 1960s, and their children and grandchildren, have really begun to change this country for the better, and the fact that one of their children is president shows how far we have come. But in spite of all of this progress, we still have the bitter anger that I felt in the elementary school yard, we still have Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck and Pat Buchanan spewing their fear and hatred against immigrants and people of color. A whole lot has changed in the 40 years since I stood in that schoolyard holding the hands of the little ones in my care, and in the 20 years since my father died, but a whole lot of things haven't as well. We still have to fight the same battles: for immigrants and all people of color to be treated with respect; for those who are sick or are dying to be well cared for with dignity, in a manner of their choosing, as my father was lucky enough to do; for the poor of this world to have a change at a decent life and decent education and decent health care, as my dad wanted for all his life.

For my dad, it was his faith that gave him those values. To feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and those in prison. To welcome the stranger. To be our brother's and sister's keeper. To proclaim good news to the poor and let the oppressed go free. To show mercy and love kindness. Those are the values I was raised with, and when I hear Joe Wilson from the buckle of the Bible belt scream "You lie" at this president when he is talking about health care for all, I wonder how those values got so distorted.

So, Dad, wherever you are, thank you for raising me with those values and not the bitter angry ugliness of the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs, and Joe Wilsons of this world. A lot has changed since you left this good earth, but we're still fighting the ugliness. But I honor you and all those famous and unsung pioneers for human justice who have gone before us. I am thankful that there were people like you and my mom who welcomed the stranger, people who welcomed Barack Obama, Sr and so many other immigrants who have contributed to the quality of this country, and still are. The next time I write, I hope I'll be telling you that we finally have decent health care for all, and that we live in a country where immigrants are finally welcome.

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