“Does Obama’s victory, as a black man, make you feel that you can do anything?” Someone asked me that on election night.
It is a caricature of America that, pre-Obama, major obstacles blocked achievement. It is equally a caricature that Obama’s win suddenly creates opportunity that did not exist before.
Hard work wins, my dad always told me. My Republican father, who disdained Democrats who “give people something for nothing,” taught my brothers and me to work hard, stay focused, live within our means, and at all times avoid self-pity. My mom and dad always said, “Ninety percent of the people don’t care about your problems. And the 10 percent are glad it’s you.”
Born in Athens, Ga., and eventually raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., my dad never knew his biological father. The only father figure in his life was harsh, distant and cold. His mother, because he made “too much noise” for her then-boyfriend, threw him out of the house at age 13.
So this penniless boy, living in the Jim Crow South as the Great Depression loomed, started knocking on doors. He finally got a job running errands and tending the yard for a white family. One day, the family’s cook failed to show up. But my dad, having watched her in the kitchen, whipped up a passable meal. The family let the other helper go, and a cook was born.
Seeking more money, my dad applied for and got a job on the railroads as a Pullman porter — then the country’s largest private employer of blacks. He traveled all over the country, making a mental note of California because, he says, its beauty and warm weather seemed open and inviting, and the people seemed more fair.
World War II broke out. My dad enlisted as a Marine. He served as a cook and became a sergeant. The military ultimately stationed him on Guam as we prepared to invade the islands of Japan, an invasion that never took place because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
My dad returned to Chattanooga, where he went to an employment office. The lady at the desk told him he walked through the wrong door, directed him back out to the hall, and told him to enter through the “colored only” door.
“That’s it,” he angrily told my mom, whom he had just married. “I’m going to California, and in a few days, I will send for you.”
My father arrived in Los Angeles and went from restaurant to restaurant to find work. “Sorry,” he was told, “you have no references.” “Sorry, you have no credentials.” “Sorry …” He, of course, knew why.
He went to an employment office. The woman said, “We have no openings.” My dad said, “I’ll sit until you do.” He sat in that office from opening until closing for a day and a half. Finally, the woman called him to the desk and said: “I have a job. It’s for a janitor. Do you want it?”
My dad worked at that job for nearly 10 years, while working a second full-time job for nearly as long and cooking for a white family on the weekends. He somehow managed to go to night school to get his GED and save enough money, while in his 40s, to start a small cafe near downtown Los Angeles.
He ran the cafe, which provided my brothers and me weekend and summer jobs, until he was in his 80s. One day, my dad and I decided to clean out the garage. We found a letter he wrote to my older brother, then 2 years old. My dad said he feared that if something happened to him, my brother would need guidance:
May 4, 1951 Dad is now 93 and, thankfully, still with us.
Kirk, my Son, you are now starting out in life — a life that Mother and I cannot live for you.
So as you journey through life, remember it’s yours, so make it a good one. Always try to cheer up the other fellow.
Learn to think straight, analyze things, be sure you have all the facts before concluding, and always (SET ITAL) spend (END ITAL) less than you earn.
Make friends, work hard, and play hard. Most important of all remember this — the best of friends wear out if you use them.
This may sound silly, Son, but no matter where you are on the 29th of September (Kirk’s birthday), see that Mother gets a little gift, if possible, along with a big kiss and a broad smile.
When you are out on your own, listen and take advice but do your own thinking and concluding, set up a reasonable goal, then be determined to reach it. You can and will, it’s up to you, Son.
So, yes, Obama’s historic victory makes a statement about the long, hard, bloody journey. Obama makes people believe. Some of us always did.