Sunday, January 06, 2008

Having the Ears of an Other

Second Grade.

It was my first day of school in a far away place from all my family and friends. The landscape was different - grass grew without watering, the people spoke with a funny accent to my ears, and my bed consisted of a gray futon that was dragged to the middle of our one bedroom apartment each night so I could sleep.

Being so young, I wasn't fully aware of what my parents were experiencing at the time. My dad had landed a job in Norman, Oklahoma for the second time since I'd been born and my mom was sort of along for the ride. One that I recall she didn't quite enjoy, if the phone calls and crying home were any indication. Falling into a typical patriarchal home, however, my dad's employment was the law of the land and the thing that kept food on the table.

Returning to the classroom, a setting I was always comfortable in because it stimulated my mind and imagination, that first day is one that I will never forget. Approaching my seventh birthday, I had yet to understand the dynamics of race in the U.S., let alone culture; but I got a quick lesson that wasn't in the teacher's planning book that day.

Always the go-getter, I recall volunteering to read aloud for the class from some random story in the textbook. My hand flew into the air that day because the main character was a woman named Yolanda. My tia is named Yolanda!!! As I started to read the narrative, I was surprised when the teacher interrupted me.

"Her name is Yo-land-ah, not Yo-lahn-dah"

I remember arguing a bit with her but the real memory comes from the feeling I had when I was forced to read the rest of the passage saying my aunt's name wrong - each time pausing for half a heartbeat, my astonished ears reacting violently to the foreign pronunciation. It's a moment that I will never forget, because if I were to search deep in the recesses of my mind, that would be the moment when I realized that I was an Other.

What I was reacting to that day is assimilation. It wasn't done out of a head space, but rather from a portion of the heart that we refer in spanish to as el alma. That deep fiber of being within each of us that gives us our individuality but also connects us with messages and other human beings who have a way of plucking our chords like a guitar, making sweet music.

I've had this memory on my mind lately, because I've been listening to Barack Obama speak his truth on the stump the past few days. (For the record, I haven't chosen a candidate to support in the primary). Reading his book Dreams from My Father a few years ago he spoke of a moment when he was in grade school when he was horrified that his teacher mentioned his father's Kenyan background. The ridicule from his classmates was one that affected him deeply, not just of that but also his very name. Reacting to it, he constructed a false reality where his dad was actually a prince of his tribe, etc etc. This all came crashing down on him when the teacher invited his dad to speak to the class when he was stateside.

Barack Obama's story is one that I can identify with on a deep level despite the obvious differences in our upbringing and accomplishments. It's the sort of thing that, I believe, is transcendent of politics - though in a Presidential race, those aspects certainly need to be considered and scrutinized as well. The very possibility that the U.S. has the real chance at electing an Other in 2008, after eight years of tyrannical leadership by a member of one of America™'s aristocratic families, has me feeling hopeful. I can't suppress it, and have chosen not to, in the face of a divergence of voices I've read in the aftermath of Iowa regarding the authenticity of Obama's message.

One thing that's happening with the Senator from Illinois is that he is engaging a whole slew of voters that have never participated before in the political process. I've seen this crowd get labeled as superficial, ignorant and to use Hillary Clinton's line from last night's debate - in need of a "reality check". The problem is, the reality that she seemingly describes is one that has been inspiring to many people in only one sense - inspiring apathy.

This government is set up in such a way that negatively affects whole swaths of people through injustice, institutional racism and classism, or outright ignoring until it's politically expedient or needed to reach a fundraising goal. I take Obama at his word that he would fight for equality and a government that listens to everyone, because he has worked the trenches of society through his community organizing all the while living his life, carrying the continued baggage that goes with being racially pigeonholed based on skin color.

Whatever happens in the next several months, only the final vote tallies will tell (plus the Diebold hackers, but that's for a different post). I'm just excited to see new voters engaging the system and candidates who are willing to fight for those who have remained voiceless for a long time - in some cases forever. The time to analyze and debate is certainly upon us, and this country will be better off in the long run if we allow the civic engagement to happen unyieldingly and support its expansion.

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