A Huge Step

In March, 1968, we drove all night long in order to get to Florida for Spring Break, Daytona
Beach. When we got there–as I remember–it was late evening, and the beach
was wild with college kids. We looked for some place to stay but didn’t find a thing until
we stumbled into what seems, in my memory, to have been a retread army barrack.

We got in line. We were third. It was late, almost midnight, and we were desperate.

We watched as a guy and a girl got a room–I was sure they weren’t married (we felt
ourselves a long, long ways from Calvinist righteousness). The next couple stepped up
to the desk. We were listening close enough to the conversation to hear the manager
tell them that the kids right before them had taken the very last room. Sorry, he said,
sweetly.

That left us. Once that screen door slapped shut, we stood there like beggars, then
started to follow back outside.

“Hey–wait a minute,” the manager said. “We don’t take their kind here.”

He meant that couple in front of us, the ones he’d turned away. They were black.

I was 19. That night, and that moment, was probably the first time in my life that I
had looked into the face of smiling white racism. Just a week or so later, Martin Luther
King would be dead.

All Americans must be proud for what happened in early November.

Some people may have some trouble with Barack Obama; they may well be convinced
that he does not know who he is. Others may not know how to figure him into
their perceptions of what people are. Given the stark alternatives in his own DNA and
the sometimes puzzling character of his own parents and grandparents, sometimes I
wonder whether Obama really even knows himself–but then, I’m not sure any of us
do.

Soon enough–if not already–we’ll know more, much more.

But we all need to rejoice. What started right here in Iowa–for me at least in a
gym in this little town, the place full of caucus-goers–ended with a persuasive victory
in November. Even though it’s taken 400 years and there’s so much horror behind us,
something has shifted significantly in this country. We’ve begun a new era; we have a
president who is African-American.

We’ve come a long, long way, and that’s reason to give thanks.

James Schaap teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.