Great strides in an ongoing trek

Thursday, November 19, 2009

At a time when the small town of Milford, N.H., has found it in its heart to honor a black woman named Harriet Wilson, how are we to view our society as a whole when it comes to race relations?

With reason, one would hope.

In Milford on Saturday, the author Harriet Wilson was remembered on the 150th anniversary of the publication of her novel, “Our Nig,” believed to be the first novel written by an American black woman. That Wilson lived in Milford is of historical significance, if for no other reason than the Granite State is still somewhat bereft of black people.

Wilson was not well-treated by the people for whom she worked. Indeed, she was referred to as “our nig,” which led to the title of her book. It was by no means a term of endearment, of course, but she would be happy, perhaps even proud, to know that today, most people would be appalled by anyone who referred to a black person in that way.

And she would be thrilled to know that this nation has elected a black president.

But not everyone is. We have to face the fact, as a nation and a people, that some – maybe not much, but certainly some – of the anger toward President Obama is not just about policy differences. There are still people in this country who are bigots, who dislike, even hate, people because of the color of their skin. It’s sad and really says more about the bigots than the target of their bigotry, but they probably don’t realize that, or perhaps don’t care. Who knows? Who can explain that kind of hatred?

We don’t need to explain it, of course, but we need to realize that it exists, otherwise we can’t confront it and, one can hope, end it.

At the same time, we have to realize that not every negative remark made about this president is based upon bigotry. There are people who sincerely disagree with his policies and they should be able to express that disagreement without being termed racists. To assume that they are bigoted because they criticize the president is a bigotry of its own and people need to own up to that.

And we need to remember that progress continues to be made. Would it have been possible, for instance, to have honored Harriet Wilson 50 years ago? Possibly ... possibly. But not all that likely.

The fact that a small, predominately white town in small, predominantly white New Hampshire has erected a memorial to, and continues to honor, a black woman is progress indeed.

But real progress comes when we accept that everyone should be treated really equally, to wit: We criticize a black president exactly as we would a white president.

Years ago, when Frank Robinson became baseball’s first black manager, there were a few who said that equality wouldn’t really have arrived in baseball until someone became the first black manager to be fired, just as white managers were fired. Well, it happened, of course, and the world didn’t end. Now, a black manager in baseball is nothing new, nothing to be remarked upon, even when that manager gets fired. No one cries, “Racist” when an owner fires a black or Latino manager. It’s business; you get fired when the team doesn’t win.

So we need to be able to criticize the president without fear of being labeled racist.

You know, Harriet Wilson likely would have wanted it that way, even if someone panned her book.

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