Several months ago, during the heat of the 2008 election cycle, I witnessed something truly remarkable. I’m from Jacksonville, Florida, a place not exactly well-known for its progressive nature or diversified social structure, but on this balmy June afternoon, I was transported to another place and time. It was a private fundraiser for our then-future-president Barack Obama, campaigning in a republican stronghold that still bleeds from its own race riot, begrudgingly remembered almost 50 years later as “Ax Handle Saturday”. But on this beautiful day I witnessed something so beautiful that even now, tears of joy fill my eyes and blur the page.
I saw people of all colors, ages, and creeds in the same room; and they weren’t fighting or screaming; they were hugging, shaking hands, laughing and enjoying each other. Black, white, yellow, red, or brown, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sikh, Pagan, and Atheist, gay, straight, married, divorced, or single, elderly and frail, young and spry, middle-aged and carrying children, normally disaffected youth and hardened hippie activists, embracing something that I never thought possible: each other.
I am a white male from a protestant, middle class background. To give you an idea of just how segregated life here can be, I never really interacted with anyone other than white people until I was going to high school. It isn’t so much that we are racist or discriminatory, but Jacksonville remains residentially and socio-economically segregated to the extreme, making it difficult to associate with different cultures without difficulty. In a metro area of a little over 1,000,000, it is trying enough to keep in touch with your own neighbors, let alone people who live nowhere near you. But I wasn’t so removed from the world that I had never seen non-white people.
When I was a child, my grandmother would tell me stories about growing up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina. They were dirt poor, just like everyone else, and worked the land side-by-side with “the blacks” as she called them. She’d say they were no different from us on the inside, just a little darker on the outside. Being young as I was, I never really understood why that was so important to her, but today, I see why every day. But in many ways she was wrong, well not wrong because she never is, but maybe misinformed a little.
On that day in June, surrounded by Obama supporters from all walks of life, I realized that it was better to accept our many differences: the way we look, think, dress, sing, worship, and live; the way we look at the world through the lens of differing experiences. I believe differences may make it harder to see what we have in common, but it makes life so much more exciting, the embrace so much warmer, and the outcome so much more meaningful. How does that song go? “What the world needs now, is love sweet love. It’s the only thing, that there’s just too little of.”
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