March 23, 2008

Preparing the Way

Weedcraft artwork, by Fern Nye
After the American Century

On this Easter Morning I want to wish all my readers well, and say Thank You for your attention. The pace of publication has been slow of late because of the final illness of my mother, Fern, who passed away last week. She was one of my readers. Rather, beginning in childhood, she was my first reader. She also took a keen interest in politics, worked to get out the vote, and once was elected a Justice of the Peace. Even in her last days, she was following the current election with great interest. Always a swing voter, she studied the candidates closely. She was a liberal Republican who admired both Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter, both Dwight Eisenhower and Martin Luther King.

Barack Obama made what is already a famous speech last week, but unfortunately my mother never got to hear it. The media keeps referring to it as a speech about "race", but it would be more accurate to say that it is about getting beyond racial fears and stereotyping. By giving it in Philadelphia he called attention to the continuity between his campaign and the promises and possibilities of the Constitution that was written in that city 221 years ago. It is a great speech because it is not mere rhetorical effects, but a probing analysis of the attitudes of both African-Americans and White Americans. So many have already commented on what he said, that I will only say that it reminds Americans of all racial and religious backgrounds that we are on a journey together, sharing a common fate, building a common future.

I feel certain that my mother would have liked that speech. In her own way, she was part of the process of change that Obama embodies and embraces. In the late 1950s, also in Pennsylvania, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she strongly supported hiring a Black clergyman in her largely white Episcopal congregation. He was hired, and proved to be an effective and popular minister. For the most part, Fern Nye was not a public figure, working quietly and generously for others through volunteer work and charitable giving.

Nevertheless, she acknowledged that, while she knew as a trained biologist that racial differences were so minimal as to be unimportant, she still discovered racist feelings within herself. For example, she once confessed to me (c. 1964) that when taking communion, sharing the same cup of wine with a Black person as it was passed from mouth to mouth, bothered her, even though intellectually she knew it should not. Her honesty about such matters helped her to transcend these feelings. She did not let herself become a prisoner of prejudice but continued to develop on many levels until the end of her life. She was considering whether or not to vote for Obama. That would have been inconceivable when she first was old enough to vote in 1941.

On this Easter Day I honor Fern Nye and the journey she made. Like many in her generation, she became more open and tolerant with the years. If we can now believe that "Yes, We Can," it is because people like her prepared the way.