Hippie-Squared: We the Mutt People


A blogumn by Jeff Rogers

Folding chairs in rows in a high school gym in Kalamazoo, Michigan in about 1968. I would have been about five. A portable movie screen on rickety legs, one of my first experiences seeing a movie out in the world, and it was a black and white documentary. My mom took me to see black people being beaten, drenched and thrown back by founts of fierce water from fire hoses, snarling dogs straining to rip their flesh, tear gas boiling across the screen. Was this before or after King’s assassination? I believe I remember that too. The TV going for hours down in the basement. King’s face above Walter Cronkite’s left shoulder. Lying on my stomach on the couch, watching the backs of my parents’ heads watching, rapt and subdued.

Obama’s is a soaring victory for the whole world. It’s also so deeply personal for many of us that it’s hard to express in direct words. The notion that this election somehow makes us “post-racial” is absurd. The wealth of this country was built on slavery. Racism, civil rights, these are abstractions without the countless personal experiences that give them life. No American is untouched by it all. But we’re all touched in ways that are our own, that belong to us, but also make us belong to each other. I’m white. It’s easy for someone else who doesn’t live in my skin to say that my feelings of relief, of some sort of culmination, are because Obama’s election expiates my guilt or validates me as a non-racist. But that’s reductionist and dehumanizing.

We moved to Lansing when I was nine and I became a minority in fifth grade. I remember being crowded into a corner between brick walls on a cold winter day outside the school doors during recess by a gang of black girls who all kicked me and called me “skinny honky.” I didn’t fight back. I didn’t feel entitled. I remember telling my mom about it all, and I remember swallowing my anger that, uneducated, might have become some sort of hatred. She would never have let it. She helped me instead to use it as a means to a deeper understanding. I remember linking it to the beatings, the hosings, the dogs. My little guilty white liberal skinny honky tales of discrimination are so small compared to what 83 year old Vera, who I met in Inglewood, precinct-walking and who was born in the south in 1925, has no doubt endured. But they’re mine and they shaped me.

I remember lying on my stomach on the shag rug in Nepo, my dad’s professorial commune, 1973. A tenth anniversary rerun of “I Have a Dream.” I watched it entirely, up close to the TV, the full house of adults and their kids moving and talking around me. I remember lying awake that night on the mattress in the crow’s nest room on the third floor, streetlights lighting up one whole yellow wall, King’s cadences and enumerated dreams filling my head and becoming my dreams.

Much of this I hadn’t thought of in years but it all came back to me when the relief of Obama’s election, the fact that they hadn’t been able to steal this one too, gave way during his acceptance speech to a marvelous sense of personal culmination. Obama, whose story is so very American, called us “a people,” and so we are—one people, whether we like or not, and his election seems to indicate that right now, blessedly, we do like it—not based on homogenous genetics hermetically passed around in one tight spot for thousands of years, but a multi-hued, multi-experienced mutt people. Made one people despite ourselves by our shared variousness. A people of the world, by the world and for the world. Obama’s election was not just one culmination but millions upon millions of culminations. One of which was yours, dear reader. And one of which was mine.


Photo Credit: Nathan Gibbs