August 6th, 2008


on opportunity

The NEW YORK TIMES magazine story on whether or not Obama represents the end of black politics contains one of the most heartfelt, heartbreaking quotes I've ever run across.

Elijah Cummings, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and an early Obama supporter, told me a story about watching his father, a South Carolina sharecropper with a fourth-grade education, weep uncontrollably when Cummings was sworn in as a representative in 1996. Afterward, Cummings asked his dad if he had been crying tears of joy. "Oh, you know, I’m happy," his father replied. "But now I realize, had I been given the opportunity, what I could have been. And I’m about to die."

The disadvantaged suffer something that the dead don't: if you live long and get lucky, you get to see people do things that you never dreamed were possible, and now only know you'll never do. And -- this is the killer -- *they think it's normal.*

Maybe it's part of being young: I only thought that people would take joy in that. Until I'd read the story about Elijah Cummings's father, I didn't think about how much it'd hurt.

(This reaction to an undreamed future seems like something science fiction should have explored, but I'm racking my brain a bit on this one. From Edward Bellamy's LOOKING BACKWARD on, folks from the benighted past have been portrayed as reacting to future utopias with delight and eager acceptance. Vernor Vinge's RAINBOW'S END takes the other view, where the rejuvenated, formerly incomprehending protagonist is deeply uncomfortable and alienated by the technological and social developments that the people of his new present take for granted or think are really nifty, but that's not the same thing at all.)