Election of Obama shows great gains in fighting racism

Posted Nov. 14, 2008, at 8:10 p.m.

When I was a child, someone once said to me, “Wash your hands after you handle money. Anybody might have touched it, even a colored person.”

I was puzzled. “Wouldn’t the dollar be just as dirty if a white person touched it?” I asked. When all I received in answer was a scowl that said I was being fresh, I became shocked. Apparently, this person thought black people were dirty. I wondered if the adult were so stupid as to think skin color itself would rub off on the dollar, darkening it. Obviously, this adult was not very bright. Nevertheless, the bigot was strong in her convictions. You could hear it in her tone.

That was not such a long time ago. In fact, that prejudiced remark was spoken around the time when Harper Lee was writing her now classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Now widely taught in middle schools and high schools, that 1960 novel looks at a Southern community in which prejudice runs rampant. Those who read this book in school — or who joined the 2006 PenBay Reads program, which provided free copies of the book, book talks and a film finale at the Strand movie theater in Rockland — will know this novel details what happens when a black man is falsely accused of raping a white woman.

Although he has a wonderfully earnest white lawyer and many realize his accuser is lying, the black man is nevertheless imprisoned for the crime.

This perversion of justice was all-too-possible — even all-too-likely — only a matter of decades ago. These were the days before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This was the time that civil rights proponents protested at risk to their lives. It was an era when only the wildest visionary could picture a black president in the White House. Back then, Harper Lee’s book was seen as eye-opening and brave, because the author had the courage to take a hard look at some outrageous injustice, and she dared to show otherwise law-abiding and even “good” people readily riding on a racist bandwagon. Those who read and appreciated it when it was new could only hope the spotlight that book shone on racism would help to change this. Now it’s possible to read that book and hope it will help to wipe out subtler and still insidious vestiges of prejudice.

Reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” during the same week when Barack Obama was chosen President-elect of the United States, I realized we all have something extraordinary to be grateful for on this particular Thanksgiving. Whether or not one voted for Obama or his opponent, this is a brave new world. And it became so thanks to many who would not get on the racist bandwagon. Among them was Harper Lee, whose great gift was to provide us with a special kind of reading readiness — readiness for change in our minds and our hearts.

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