Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




November 13 , 2008

Of many things, I wish my parents had lived long enough to see Barack Obama elected as the 44th President of the United States. I think they would have appreciated it far more than I ever could.

My parents were Depression-era kids, African-Americans raised in that East Bay racial netherworld that actively practiced anti-Black racism, but then unashamedly spent the following years wrapping itself in the mantle of progressivism and pretending that it never did. My mother’s father, Thomas Reid, was a skilled carpenter from Georgia who could never get a job as a skilled carpenter in the Bay Area, and so he ended his life supporting his family by mopping floors at Berkeley’s Wonder Bread bakery. My father’s father, Ellis Allen, a Louisiana man of many talents, could only find work in Oakland as a waiter on the Pullman trains, a subservient position barely a step up from the old Black man-servants of slaverytimes, where the “yessir” and tip of the cap were mandatory job skills. Grandmothers on both my mother’s and father’s sides were still alive late in my parents’ childhood, women who had been born into and lived their earliest years in plantation slavery in Virginia and Louisiana, respectively.

In the East Bay world in which my parents grew up, the swimming pools and beaches were segregated, and African-Americans had to picket and boycott local stores and other businesses in order to get jobs at places where they shopped. Most of the East Bay hills was off limits for African-American residents, as were large stretches of the East Oakland flatlands. Black workers were only allowed to work in the World War II Richmond shipyards under the covenant that Henry Kaiser—the industrialist who brought them up from the South by the trainload—agreed to demolish the houses and neighborhoods he had built for them as soon as the war was over.

Both my parents found outlets in competitive sports—which, during their growing up years, was deeply segregated beyond the high school level—and like many African-Americans of their era, closely followed the national progress of African-Americans by tracking the progress in that arena.

But even in that seemingly innocuous area—where prestige but no power was the reward—African-Americans had to be careful under certain circumstances to mute their exuberance.

My cousin, Geoffrey Pete, often illustrates this point with a story about an unnamed Black waiter and the 1938 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling heavyweight boxing title fight.

Louis, affectionately known as the “Brown Bomber”, was the first African-American to win the heavyweight crown since it was stripped from Jack Johnson for daring to have a white girlfriend. But in 1936, Louis lost the title to the German Max Schmeling, no Nazi himself, but used by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to advance their theory of Aryan supremacy over the darker races. When Louis and Schmeling met for a rematch in New York in 1938, before the horrors of World War II and the revelations of the Holocaust had turned American opinion against the Nazis, support for the two fighters in America was often divided along racial lines.

The website Legends And Lore describes what actually happened in the second Louis-Schmeling fight:

“At the opening bell, Louis forced Schmeling to the ropes. Suddenly a Louis right lifted Schmeling's right foot in the air and the German grabbed the top rope to steady himself. Schmeling extended only his left arm for protection. Louis then unloaded a barrage of punches, many landing against Schmeling's head. Schmeling then turned away from the champion and a body shot seemed to leave him paralyzed. Schmeling later said it was an illegal kidney punch and that he never fully recovered from the blow. With Schmeling still pinned along the ropes, a Louis right buckled his knees and referee Arthur Donovan intervened. After a brief count, he allowed the action to continue. Schmeling wobbled toward Louis and was met with a right hand that sent him crashing to the canvas. Schmeling gamely reached his feet but another Louis combination sent him down again. The Schmeling corner then threw a towel into the ring, signifying their surrender. Donovan, who had reached the count of five, waved the bout off after just 2 minutes and four seconds of action. Schmeling threw just two punches in the bout.”

The course of the short fight was followed on radios around the nation, one of them in the basement of a San Francisco hotel, where the Black staff huddled, and listened, and then roared out in celebration at the result. As my cousin, Geoffrey, tells the story, one of the waiters left the gathering grinning with pride, only to meet a white patron in the empty street just outside the hotel. The white man had evidently been somewhere out on business, and had not been able to listen to the fight.

“How’s it going with Schmeling and Louis?” the white man asked the waiter.

The waiter quickly sized up the situation, replacing his widespread grin with a look of serious concern. “I ain’t know, boss,” he said, rubbing his brow. “Louis a good man, but look like Mr. Schmeling taking it to him.”

We have come a long way, haven’t we, in these intervening 70 years, to a moment when African-Americans could openly dance up and down Broadway in downtown Oakland, celebrating the election of the first African-American president in United States history.

My parents never broke the habit of following African-American progress through the medium of sports. My mother was never a golf fan, but in her last years she adopted Tiger Woods as a fourth grandson, never calling him anything but “Tiger,” and during golf tournaments, when I came home from work in the evenings, she would greet me, inevitably, with a smile and a “did you see what Tiger did today?”

My father’s measure was football, and the march of African-Americans into the quarterback ranks. As remarkable as it must seem for those who have come of age recently, Black athletes were long barred from the football quarterback position on the grounds that they either lacked the intelligence to make the many and fast-moving decisions that the position required, or the courage to stand and make the proper play with defensive linemen bearing down on them. Blacks who played successfully as quarterbacks on high school or Black college teams were inevitably moved over to wide receiver, running back, or defensive back when and if they entered the pro ranks. When that barrier was finally, and slowly, broken in the white colleges and the pros, my father maintained no allegiance to any particular team, but rooted for whatever team on television had the Black quarterback. It is amusing to think how he would have managed things today, when not only is a Black quarterback v. Black quarterback game common, but a Black coach v. Black coach as well. Like a kid at Thanksgiving dinner, I think he would have mourned the fact of too much food, and too little plate.

If my mother had lived to see 2008, she would have adopted Barack Obama immediately as she had Tiger Woods, calling him “Barack” as if she had known him all her life, following the course of the election on the cable news stations by day, and then listening to the radio talk show chatter over it late into the night. She would have cooed and fussed over Michelle and the girls, and fumed when either they or her “Barack” came under attack. She would have tolerated John McCain, though blaming him for unleashing the dogs of racism, and she would have hated Sarah Palin, greeting her with glares and choice words every time she came onscreen like the audiences greeted the old silent movie villains. And she would have squealed and screamed and gotten up and danced on the night Barack Obama won, as we did on the night that Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston, or when the Williams sisters won Wimbeldon.

My father would have come along more slowly.

My father was the most thoughtful person I ever knew, a man who kept his own counsel, did his own research, and made up his own mind before ever voicing an opinion, and without being swayed by what the public was thinking. In addition, my father had no illusions about Black politicians, even pioneering Black politicians, knowing them as persons first, rather than legends. Long before Lionel Wilson became a state judge and then Oakland’s first African-American mayor, my father knew him on the Oakland basketball courts. (“He was always the captain of the team, always was the point guard, always took the last shot,” my father would say of Mr. Wilson. “You know why?” He would give a knowing smile. “Because he was always the one who brought the basketball.”)

More than anything else, it would have been the Rev. Jeremiah Wright affair that would have stayed my father’s enthusiasm about Barack Obama, but not in the way it affected many white Americans. My father—who faithfully, without fail, read the newspaper over coffee every morning—would have found a way to listen to Mr. Wright’s sermons—the whole sermons, not just the salacious snippets—and there would have found resonance in his own experiences and views on America. My father would have believed—rightfully so, I think—that Barack Obama and Mr. Wright were far closer than was later asserted, probably mentor and pupil, and that if Mr. Obama did not hear the most radical of Mr. Wright’s sermons first-hands as he later claimed, he almost certainly heard those views forcefully argued by the reverend over Sunday suppers. While it is probably true that Mr. Obama did not agree with the most adamant of Mr. Wright’s pro-Black and criticize-America sentiments, and would have argued with the reverend just as forcefully in rebuttal, he would have learned much from those exchanges that was not in his background, and would have incorporated many of those thought-processes in his analyses of America and the world. While my father may have seen Mr. Obama’s disavowal of Mr. Wright’s views as politically necessary to win the presidency, he nonetheless would have seen that disavowal as disingenuous and something of a betrayal, souring him even more on the political process, if not the man himself.

But in the end, I believe, my father would have come around, and seen in the Obama victory a long, crossover step in the long march of African-American history.

Once, when my father and I were driving through West Oakland, we saw an elderly Black woman walking along the street and my father, unaccountably, said, “I wonder what she’s thinking.” When I asked him what he meant, he said, “The things she’s seen in her life. The tragedies. The sorrows. She’s seen things we can never imagine. I wonder what she thinks about them, now.”

Perhaps he was thinking of his own grandmother, at the time.

I think that about my parents. I walked along Broadway in downtown Oakland on the night Barack Obama was elected, watched the celebrating crowds, and wondered what my parents would have thought about all that had happened and was happening. I wish that they were here to see it, and to let me know. Of these golden days, my chief regret is that they are not.

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