Tue September 16, 2008
Commentary: Improbable Stories, Unimaginable Lives
By Charles Pierson
Buffalo, NY – As a nation of immigrants, Americans are, to use Barack Obama's phrase, "a people of improbable hope." Obama himself is the son of an immigrant. The Kenyan scholarship program that funded his father's studies at the University of Hawaii was created by the Kennedy family foundation at the request of Senator John F. Kennedy. Obama sometimes talks about the improbable story of his life: how the mixed race child of a single mother, who lived in Hawaii and Indonesia as a boy, the guy with the funny sounding name and the big ears, became a candidate for president of the United States.
Lately, I have started to wonder if we don't all have such improbable stories, even if they are buried in the depths of our unfathomed past. In 1998, my wife and I drove from Buffalo to New Haven, Connecticut to attend my stepson's graduation from Yale. With us were my wife's elderly mother, who at the time was in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, and our infant daughter. My mother-in-law was born in 1918 in McKinney, Texas. Her childhood and much of her adult life were lived in a social world suffused with unbridled racism, as was everyone's who lived in the South during that time. So, it was an incredible irony to see her brimming with pride that her bi-racial (black and white) grandson, the mixed-race child of a single mother, was graduating from one of the best colleges in the country. Many times during that trip she sang to her other biracial grandchild, our daughter, "Oh ho ho, you and me, little brown girl how I love thee." Perhaps the Alzheimer's allowed her to sing without any apparent self-consciousness.
I noticed as we walked around the Yale campus that one of the dormitories was called Pierson College, spelled exactly like my surname, although at the time I gave it little thought. Then last summer, as I dug around for my family roots, I discovered that the founder of Yale was my distant cousin, Abraham Pierson. His father had traveled to America on the second Mayflower in 1639, with my 9th great-grandfather, Henry Pierson. And so it came to pass that I -- a white man raised in an exclusively white small town in Wisconsin, who as a child in the 1960's heard my grandfathers make racist comments, and saw my father confront his father over racist remarks - I, would attend the graduation ceremony of my biracial stepson with my overjoyed, formerly racist mother-in-law, at Yale College, one-time bastion of WASP privilege, which was founded by my cousin. And it also came to pass that my biracial infant daughter was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the widely diverse students of Yale. They were the future, and they immediately saw that she was one of them.
Ten years later, in Concord, New Hampshire, my daughter shook Barack Obama's hand the day after he won the Iowa Caucus. The crowd in the high school gymnasium cheered him wildly, like a hometown hero. The future had arrived, and he was one of them. With them, and with the same improbable hope shared by our immigrant great grandparents, as Barack Obama campaigns as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States, we all now step forward into the unimaginable life that is our future.
Listener-Commentator Charles Pierson is a psychologist in Buffalo.
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