The first time Jesse Jackson ran for president, my paternal grandfather and I watched the campaign coverage from the brown leather couch in our basement. My mother had purchased the couch with S&H Green Stamps in the early years of her marriage, a symbol of her independence and the home she was creating for her new family. It was heavy, as if anchored. The frame was solid and built to last a lifetime. The leather was thick enough to withstand children but soft enough to sleep on. I loved how cool it felt on the backs of my sunburned legs, and how it held warmth in winter, when I snuggled safe under blankets with my family.
As my grandfather and I watched the news, I was impressed by the energy of Jackson’s campaign, by his Rainbow Coalition and by his announcement that he would consider a woman as his running mate. I was 9, and it was 1984, so I had a thing for rainbows in general. But I also had a child’s sense of justice and equality, and I understood even then that if Jackson were elected to the White House, he could give voice to those who hadn’t been heard. The excitement was contagious.
“If I could, I’d vote for Jesse Jackson,” I said, proud not only that I was old enough to make such a choice but that I’d made such a good one. My grandfather sat only inches away, so his slap wasn’t that hard, but it stung. “A black man will be president over my dead body!” he said. His cheeks flushed red with anger, and he leaned away from me as if to determine the success of the blow. He gestured toward the television. “That man will not be president!” he said, settling back against the cushions, confident he’d driven his point home.
I burned with humiliation and confusion but didn’t have the vocabulary or maturity to express myself. Instead, I waited until the next set of commercials, which in those days was a decent interval, and then excused myself to the bathroom, where I sat on the floor and cried.
My grandfather smiled more than anyone I’ve met. He was always patient and always proud of me. Now, suddenly, I’d let him down. But worse than that, I’d disappointed him by being on the side of right. His slap didn’t shake my political and social commitment — but it shook my love for him and damaged the foundation of our relationship. In 10 words, he called into question everything I thought I knew about my family and what it meant to be a good person. He may as well have punched me in the gut.
The Connecticut town in which my grandfather, my father and I were born changed little over the course of 50 years. Its mills and factories were owned and staffed by Italian, Irish, Polish and German immigrants, its population held steady at about 35,000 and the middle class thrived. In the 1984 election year, more than 98 percent of my town identified itself as white, down one percentage point from the year I was born. I hadn’t known my grandfather was a racist because we never encountered anyone who didn’t look like us.
I didn’t tell anyone else about my desire for a Jackson presidency. I no longer knew whom to trust. I listened for hints of intolerance in everyone I loved, and I feared that I’d love them less for what I heard. My parents raised me on Ezra Jack Keats and Moja Means One, a Swahili counting book. Despite the differences between the characters and me, I saw myself in them and them in me. I’d embraced those differences, and I recognized our shared humanity. But in hindsight, perhaps it’s too easy to love the idea of another when you’ve never shared a reality, just as it’s easier to hate and fear what you don’t know or understand.
My grandfather was right about one thing. A black man became president over his dead body. In the years between the incident on the couch and my grandfather’s death 14 years later, I struggled to understand his perspective. It wasn’t until 2015, when I took a Harvard Implicit Association Test, an online tool to uncover your own biases, that I finally forgave him. I was shocked to discover that I have a “slight racial bias” toward white people. I’ve worked in social justice, in educational programs in ports most affected by the legacy of slavery. As a white woman in what some viewed as a role only a black person should have, I’ve had plenty of hard conversations about race. But it took the IAT to show me that I, like my grandfather, am a product of my time and place, as well as the color of my skin. For the first time, I was able to see myself in my grandfather, and him in me.
My hometown is now 15 percent less white than it was in 1984, and the old couch is now mine. Its frame is still solid and strong, but the leather has dried and cracked, and I didn’t inherit the family propensity for keeping things the way they’ve always been. I’m sitting now where I sat with my grandfather decades ago, thinking about the things we pass down, intentionally and obliviously. I wish my grandfather had lived to see Obama take office, to talk with me about my votes, to see — even if he couldn’t participate — the world change around him.
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