Tuesday, November 4, 2008

That far-off distant dawn is here

TWENTY YEARS AGO, a transplanted troubador from the South wrote a song about events that occurred 20 years earlier, in the 1960s. It was a song about race relations in the United States, and I first heard it in the late ’80s when he performed it live in the coffeehouse-like crypt of a church on the campus of Columbia University.

Through lyrics woven together in his typically folksy way, singer-songwriter David Massengill of Bristol, Tennessee, covered a lot of ground in his song, from the days of the old Amos and Andy show to the integration of white schools, from church bombings to fire hoses and billy clubs, night riders and lynching mobs, all in an effort to stay "Number One in America."

Ax handles vs. the right to vote.
All-white jury; that's all she wrote.
Back of the bus, Don't rock the boat.
Separate but equal, by the throat.

Perhaps the most personal moment comes when he tells us about an incident in his hometown. The Ku Klux Klan applied for a permit to march there. What many folks up North don't know about Bristol, Tennessee, is that there is also a Bristol, Virginia, and that the two sister cities are actually one city, nearly seamless except for a state line. The boundary is the yellow stripe that runs down the main thoroughfare, known as State Street.

Virginia granted the KKK a permit to march one day, but the Tennessee side said no. And while TV cameras were triple-tiered to record the event, the KKK conducted its demonstration. But on hand to make sure they did not march into Tennessee were a contingent of Tennessee sheriffs and deputies, as well as hordes of white and black Tennesseeans who "laughed and cried and hooted and jeered" until the Klansmen disappeared.

And then David sang this verse, which has stuck with me in the 20-some-odd years since I first heard it:

In some far-off distant dawn,
When a black is president and not a pawn,
Will they burn crosses on the White House lawn
And talk of all the days bygone.

Well, as I write this in Wednesday's wee hours of the morning, that far-off distant dawn is just a few short minutes away. America will wake up soon to the first black president in the history of the republic. And the most amazing thing is, it looks like folks see him for something more than just a man of color. They see him as a man of hope, and promise, and youth.

We've finally come of age. Not unlike the closing tale in David's beautiful song, where he watches a poor white girl pick out one toy, that's all, as her family shops for Christmas presents they can ill afford. This girl picks out a black-skinned doll and holds it to her chest in awe. Curious to see her parents' reaction, our narrator is amazed to discover that the mom and dad are matter-of-fact; they just check to see if the doll is cracked.

We have, indeed, come of age.

I'll leave you with David's clarion call in "Number One in America." It bears repeating as we wake up today in a changed new world, where a black is president and not a pawn.


P O S T S C R I P T : This is for you, Aunt Linda. May you have an especially happy 96th birthday next week, having lived this long to get your one birthday wish!

1 comment:

Toby said...

Thanks, Bill. A great piece! I'll make sure to link to it as well in Facebook.

And I just talked to Aunt Linda, thanking her for first turning me on to this guy with the funny name.....

Wow! My word verification is "revive" - I think that's what happened with America's optimism for the future!