Show of Unity
Saturday we attended a wonderful neighborhood event to reclaim a school mural that had been defaced by racist graffiti. The swastika, racial epithet, and death threat had been covered with grey paint as soon as parents and teachers discovered them on the way to school, but this "Unity" event covered the grey with something more hopeful: colored hand prints by all the people who attended, including students from the mostly black student body, families from the mostly white surrounding neighborhood, the new black mayor who won with an unprecedented and racially mixed majority, and the local white reverend who has been preaching about tolerance from her Presbyterian pulpit. It was a symbolic gathering engaged in a symbolic act, but sometimes symbolism is powerful. I was glad so many people showed up.
Attendance at the event shows that our neighborhood is more committed to tolerance than it was thirty years ago, when my former black neighbor moved here and was greeted with a pipe bomb on his front porch and no community outrage about it. I have a sense, though, that not everyone wants to see the connection between the neighborhood’s history and the recent graffiti. I’ve heard several people comment that “it must have been kids,” as if admitting adults might have done this (as a news report claimed) would make it harder to digest, which it clearly was for many people. A 60 year-old white man, who attended the school himself as a child, was quoted in the paper as saying that race “was such a nonissue when we were 6, 7 and 8.” Well, actually, race was kind of an issue in the United States in the mid-1950s, but it may not have seemed like it to children in East Falls, a community that excluded anyone who wasn’t white for many decades. Still, I’m glad the man was at the event and willing to speak with a reporter. Progress is progress.
That was how I felt Friday night at the Barack Obama rally on Independence Mall. The Philadelphia Inquirer estimated 35,000 people filled the space from the Constitution Center to the Liberty Bell. I was standing near the back and at one point realized that the boards I kept kicking were the traces of George Washington’s old house and the slave quarters that the park service paved over to build a parking lot. When I looked up, I saw snipers on the surrounding roofs, reportedly stationed there because Obama has received so many death threats. Despite these sobering reminders of our past and present, the event was electrifying. I have never seen such a diverse and unified crowd in our city, which is indeed diverse. As I looked around I saw behind me a young white woman with pink hair, in front of me an old black man with white hair, and beside me a group of men who looked liked they were from different corners of Asia. The whole crowd seemed like the kind of diverse ideal usually seen on murals (like the one defaced in East Falls) more often than in real life. Diverse music played on the loud speakers, and at one point a section of the crowd in front of me started doing the Electric Slide in unison. It was just great, even before the main attraction arrived.
As a friend said the next day, it says something about Obama that he can bring together that diverse a crowd. There are many reasons I will be voting for him tomorrow, but the hope of building a cross-racial coalition is one of them.