The Julia Moment – Obama’s Speech on Race

The easiest place to start is at the tears. And for me it was the mention of the white grandmother “who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world.”

I remember first really connecting to my black American self reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X while traveling in Europe. I was in from the beginning, along with the rage, understanding Brother Malcolm’s hatred of the “white rapist blood” within him even though the preponderance of “white” blood in me came from histories of love and directly from a courageous woman who moved across a continent and an ocean to marry a man who feared the social repercussions of his choice. And though Malcolm eventually re-evaluates his characterizations of the “blue-eyed devils,” embracing a multi-hued community of sincerity–a journey I joined in my reading–I was momentarily just as much with him when he proclaimed that the only thing he liked integrated was his coffee. I understood the history. Parts of my life connected viscerally to his narrative through my own experience and the stories both my father and mother told me. I was caught up in his intelligence and charisma. Ultimately I was inspired by his capacity for change and love.

My father’s generation have told me about the moment they saw Diahann Carroll on TV in her show Julia. She was simply a beautiful black woman, sans caricature, neither Madonna, nor whore. A woman.

When we talk of race in this country, particularly in this era, it is generally of tolerance, of how close we are or not to equality, of self-identity, or in platitudinous phrases and descriptions of colorblindness (“Love See No Color” [sic…and gag!]), of a post-racial society. We speak “people of color”–whose opposite, I guess, would be “people absent color(?).”

And I’ve heard all the justifications for black rage and white anger.

But in political dialogue I’ve never heard a self-identified black man, speak of the absolute love he receives from his white family, his complete connection to them, even as the nearly inevitable racial experiences create moments of tension within that primary relationship. This was my Julia Moment.

Most of my “friends of color” have had our moments when we said we’d never date a white person again. And I’ve been asked if that sentiment offends me, seeing that I must have some connection to my whiteness. How could a sentiment that I’ve adopted myself for a period “offend” me? During my time of self-segregation I discovered that cultural ideas were as jumbled and problematic in my limited community as they were in the larger community to which I belong by blood and experience.

That’s the complicated beauty of Obama’s speech from Tuesday morning. I cannot disown, we cannot disown the white, the black, the brown, the Asian, the native people of this land nor can we deny the legacies of what has happened in the past and what is happening now that creates division in our society. The “whole” experience, the identity beyond the hyphen that adds divisive distinction preceding the word American, is a world where we can hold the profound and profane in a single family.

I was my maternal grandmother’s first grandchild. She wasn’t happy with the idea that her daughter was marrying a black man. A year after they were, my grandmother and I started a love affair that would continue into my 30s. We’d hold hands at our favorite bench, looking out at the lighthouse, facing east towards old England, from where our ancestors came in the 17th Century. I usually sat to her left, so when I looked towards her, in the distance southeast was the land where some of my family was bought and brought to this country. Behind us was entire land that used to belong to a brown people and the coast where I was raised in the sunshine. Even further west is the island of Oahu where Barack Obama and I were born. And beyond that is the Philippines where my step mother was born and raised.

This isn’t a platitude or a list, this is our family. I don’t love everything that happens within it, we’re a complicated community, but the bond and the love is irrefutable.

(c) Jason Luckett, March 19, 2008


  1. Margit March 19, 2008

    Indeed, let’s start with the tears. My tears have been on the brink since Barak Obama first appeared. My tears spilled over unexpectedly when he won the Iowa caucus. Yesterday (and today) my tears have flooded my soul and cleared my mind. It was like watching my life and the lives of my sisters and my cousin and the lives of so many people I love revealed for what they have been. Not only is our experience REAL but it is valuable and neccessary in navigating this history. I long ago stopped calling myself bi-racial or mulatto or half and half. I stopped trying to explain in response to the inevitable question: what are you? My response became “I’m American” not out of some great sense of nationalistic pride, teeheehee, but because it felt the most true and the simplest truth. Yesterday my co-worker (a young bi-racial man) and I sat next to each other watching this speech. I could feel the two of us vibrating. My tears were also triggered by the mention of his white grandmother. When the speech was over, my co-worker, said that he had been waiting all of his life for that speech. So have I.

  2. Aaron Mendelson March 24, 2008

    I can honestly say that I thought I’d never hear a speech like Mr. Obama’s in my life time, let alone be witness to the beautifully blaring possibility that I could be alive in my country as a voting citizen with a president who happens to be African-American. As much as I would have liked to have seen Reverend Jackson, or especially Ms. Chisholm in the oval office, I knew, and believed that others felt that it was these candidates’ supreme audacity of courage that led them down the presidential campaign trail, to politically push the envelope. Yes, they played to win, but I never thought that it was possible for them to be elected. But to hear Senator Obama’s speech…, wow, I felt, pardon what might become cliché, the audacity to hope.

    This moment in time until now has always been inconceivable for me. I was alive when JFK and Malcolm X were assassinated, and I remember the feeling of hopelessness and rage when RFK and MLK were gunned down. In fact, my personal experience as the “tragic mulatto” began when I went out to play with my friends in the hood the week Reverend King was assassinated. I learned that, although my African-American side of the family raised me, I myself was different from them, because I “passed” for white.

    Color meant nothing to me at nine, because my whole world existed within the black community. My folks had lived there (and still do) all their lives. Until King’s assassination, color had never been an issue. When Reverend King was killed, I “became” white to all my black friends and their families; they told me to go home. My grandmother escorted me onto the sidewalk, holding my hand, in my effort to prove my Blackness. It didn’t work.

    King’s assassination commenced my education into the racial polarities that exist to this day. His death was the death knell of civil rights and integration at that time. As Boston’s tiny Black community moved towards Black Nationalism and Separatism, my brothers and I became targets of understandably blind Black rage. The race war was on, and Boston was also burning up like other cities. Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” was here. And just to make sense of things at that tender age, I decided I hated whites, too. Sure, I could have hated Blacks for attacking my brothers and me, but my Black family was suffering. My family helped me to understand what the roots of the problem were, and that the response in the Black community was really reactionary. My brothers and I were just in the line of fire. Nothing personal.

    I share this very personal story because I’m inspired by Senator Obama (and the music of Jason Luckett) to rise above the blood feuds of the past. It isn’t about me, and my story is only a reflection of the thousands of other stories that share the same racial and cultural thread. So for me to see and hear an African-American man stand before the nation and say that he does not refuse or negate any of the parts that comprise his totality, AND still identify himself as a Black man, is SO POWERFUL. Why? Because I’ve always believed that the utopian concept of colorless society espoused by (white) integrationists implied that if you see yourself as colorless, integrated, equal, etc, it’s not necessary to identify yourself as Black. However, Reverend King said that unity does not mean uniformity. So I sat at the “Black Tables” in college, and I lived in the “Affinity Dorm” dedicated to Malcolm X, and did a lot of other things that both Black and White students thought, “What’s he doing here/ who does he think he is?” until they heard me speak.
    Obama’s message is clear. A person of color can support and participate in an integrated
    community without giving up his/her identity or allowing the general concept to supplant
    the specific. I’m sure Senator Obama is both amused and disgusted with the accusations
    that either he’s too Black or isn’t Black enough. Thank you, Senator, for being Black
    on your own terms.

    The alternative was not an option. Passing would have been a betrayal to the family that raised me and loved me. So I praise Obama for honoring his love and allegiance to his white ancestors, just as I praise and honor my unique experience growing up as an “Unda Covah Brothah”, nurtured in a world of Black art, culture, and history in Boston’s historic Black community (Malcolm X’s Boston stomping grounds were also in Roxbury,
    and all praises to the “Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts/ National Center for Afro-American Artists”) by an extended Black matriarchal family. My father’s side is only void, given the fact that he cut himself off from his family line when his father disowned him for marrying my mother. I only knew my father’s mother briefly. However, over
    the last five years, I’ve been educating myself about my father’s Jewish history and culture
    in an effort to connect to this other complex and rich diaspora that I’m also a product of. In fact, I’m very excited about an upcoming theatrical project I’m working on because I’ll be playing a Sephardic Jew. This is an exciting time to be alive, and the courage and hope that Senator Obama is instigating are compelling me to cast off the apathy, nihilism, and suffocating rage I’ve felt for forty years and begin again with earnest and a shared audacity to re-invigorate Reverend King’s dream.

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