When Barack Obama was elected for his first term as President of the United States, I felt a sense of exhilaration and hope for our country and the progressive agenda he espoused. He was articulate, well educated and experienced. He knew how to engage people and had a way of working a room and meeting people where they were. In that manner, he reminded me of my father who could, “have a conversation with algae.”
I remember talking with my mother, who had voted for him as well. “Mom, could you ever have imagined this country electing a Black man as President when as recently as I was a kid in the ’60s, Black people couldn’t eat at some of the same restaurants as White people and couldn’t drink from the same water fountains?” She shook her head in amazement, leaned in and said, “Did I ever tell you the story about something your grandmother and I did?”
She proceeded to share the tale of the time when in 1942, she and “Giggie” boarded a bus in Philadelphia, en route to Florida for a much-needed reprieve. My mother was 18 and my grandfather had recently died. The bus was filled with a diverse group of passengers, some of them military personnel, this being in the midst of WWII. The skin tone of the people who rode was varied. When the White bus driver pulled into Washington, DC, he yelled, “All you [n-word] get to the back of the bus!” Shocked since they had never experienced that, living in racially diverse Philadelphia, they looked at each other. Then my mother stood up and said to my grandmother, “Come on, we’re going to the back of the bus too.”They did. I asked, “What did the bus driver say?” Her response was, “Nothing.” “What did the passengers say?” Again, they were met with silence. Then she added, “But what was amazing was that at every rest stop, the servicemen surrounded us to protect us from angry White passengers.”
At that moment, I was never prouder of Selma (my mom) and Henrietta (my grandmother) Hirsch, these two White middle-class Jewish ladies whose ancestors crossed the ocean to come to America before the Holocaust, blessedly to make a new home for themselves in the land of hopes and dreams.
What it took for them to risk their safety, long before I was born, long before my mother met my father, must have been in my DNA, since I show up, stand up and speak out when I see injustice being done. My grandmother died when I was four and my mother passed when I was 52. I imagine them cheering me on from the best seats in the house…or bus.
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