Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thoughts on an What an Election Means

It's been more than a month since Barack Obama was elected president.

(And we have more than a month to go before he actually becomes president. When contemplating the lag time between election and inauguration, I have to get in touch with my inner Mets fan and say, as loudly as I can: BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!)

I spent much of the campaign in an unusual position: I, the uber cynic, kept comforting my liberal-leaning friends, family members and colleagues, telling them that, yes, Obama was going to win, that there weren't a gazillion closet racists out there lying to pollsters, and that you should just relax already. (My message to my conservative-leaning friends, family members and colleagues was more succinct: You have no chance.)

Readers and reviewers of BLOOD ALLEY have remarked about the blatant racism on display in the novel. It was uncomfortable for many people to read. It was equally uncomfortable to write. But it was all the product of research. By modern standards, the attitudes of many of the white characters were appalling. In the 1940s, those attitudes were widespread and, in fact, part of the mainstream.

For the record, on the advice of my editors and my agent, I wound up toning down some of the most blatantly racist material. The conversations went something like this:

THEM: You can't put that it in. You can't phrase it that way. Modern audiences won't stand for it.
ME: But that's the way it really happened.
THEM: We believe you. But it doesn't matter.

In the 1940s, you could have gotten very long odds on the the possibility of an African-American ever becoming president of the United States. At that time, it took the minor miracle of Branch Rickey to get African-Americans into major league baseball. That the people of this country elected an African-American, at what promises to be an epochal time in our history, says something about the long, uncertain but ultimately uplifting journey the United States has made.

There was nothing inevitable about Obama's victory. For that matter, there is nothing inevitable about progress. I'm not old enough to have lived through the events I described in BLOOD ALLEY, but the research I did for the book seared something into me -- before the 1960s, it was mind-bogglingly awful to be anything but white in the United States.

So what can we be most grateful for during this holiday season? I think we should be grateful that we are no longer that type of country.

I am not by nature an optimist. The forces of reaction are powerful, and always looking to come back. But as I survey the American landscape right now, I find myself thinking: Maybe we can.