Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

I wish they could have seen this

It seems almost like a dream, in some ways. A black man will formally be declared the presidential candidate of a political party that once stood for racism, segregation and the worst indignities ever visited on a people in what was supposed to be a society based on freedom and respect.

Sen. Barack Obama’s open-air speech to the Democratic Convention in Denver could be the beginning – just the beginning, mind you – of a new era in America. If he loses in November to Sen. John McCain, it won’t be the end of hopes and dreams. Just getting this far is an awesome accomplishment.

But it’s terribly bittersweet for me because two of the finest people I have ever known are not with us to see this. I will give their names as Paula and Bill, but people who know me know who they really are.

Bill died in 2004, before the presidential election, and Paula died a few months later.

They were an example to everyone who met them, partners in life, in business and in everything. They were like those young couples you see in high school, going everywhere together, doing everything together.

Right before Paula died, I was at her house. She lay on a hospital bed in the living room, with her large-screen TV tuned to CNBC, mentally alert and active (“Gold’s up,” she said at one point), but it was clear that the end was near. We had thrilled to Obama’s speech at the 2004 convention, and I told Paula she would definitely be around for 2008, and there was an outside chance that the young, black Democrat from Illinois would be the Democratic nominee.

It was not to be. Paula died soon after, and I mourned the loss.

Paula and Bill were children of the Depression. Bill had served in the Army Air Forces in World War II as a navigator on B-24 bombers, based in Italy. Paula had worked in defense industries. They had met after the war, gotten married and set off on a life and careers that saw them teach, saw Bill work for the Fire Department in New York City, and then saw them both go into business.

They never had children, but raised cats and cultivated friends of all ages who sought them out for advice and counsel.

I inherited, then passed on to a relative, their gigantic collection of photos and movie film. Shot from the beginning of the life together in the late 1940s, the collection in slides, photos and movies showed their life and many travels, including a 1961 trip to the Soviet Union and Finland. Paula was of Finnish descent, and took a great deal of pride in her heritage.

Paula and Bill were also proud liberals who believed in equality, especially for black people. One of those boxes in the package of slides was marked to indicate that it had been taken in Washington, D.C., in August 1963. They had told me that they had gone to the march on Washington and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and here was the proof, in photos of various sights during the event. I wish I still had those slides sometimes.

I learned so much from Paula and Bill, and it is painful that I can no longer visit their house or call up just to chat. We’d have so much to talk about now, with Barack Obama a candidate for president.

Paula and Bill were atheists and did not believe in an afterlife, and I have the same beliefs, so I cannot say for them that they are supposedly looking down on these events with approval. I just wish they were with us now, to see this wonderful day as King’s dream gets one step closer to reality.

In West Palm Beach, there is a Martin Luther King memorial and their names are in it as donors. The day after Paula died I drove from Sarasota to West Palm Beach and stopped at the memorial to look at it. I found their names and photographed them, and touched the letters.

King’s dream of unity among the races has been a dream that has seen successes and setbacks in the 45 years since he delivered his stirring words to the assembled multitude in the nation’s capital. Success has not come quickly or easily, and the setbacks have seemed to be devastating at times, but so long as people are dreaming, there can be little doubt of success.

We’ve come a long way in every way since 1963, but we have so much farther to go. I wonder if the people back then were even thinking about what life might be like in 2008, or that it would take this long for a black man to gain the presidential nomination of a major political party. But it was coming, as blacks advanced politically and took bold steps, endured the vocal attacks and heard the terrible words that racist people spit out when they’re angry or feel threatened by others’ success.

Barack Obama is not perfect, to be sure, and there are those in his own party who question his ascendance, but he will go down in history – win or lose in November – as the first, and I hope the first of many, black persons to contend for the highest office in the land.

If someone came to me one day and said I could have three wishes, I think I would ask for Paula and Bill to be alive again so they could vote – that’s two.

For the third, well, I’ll keep that to myself.

In 2053, when people look back on us now, what will they say? I hope they will say that we accepted the challenge of history. I hope they will think us fortunate to live in a time when a black man running for president was a historic event. By 2053, it may be a regular occurrence.

I’ll be busy at work when Obama gives his speech, but I hope to be able to stop just to hear some of it. It’s the biggest speech of his life, the media is saying. I say, it’s the biggest speech of our lives, too.

I just wish it would be the biggest speech of Paula and Bill’s lives.


August 28, 2008 - Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Just heard the news that McCain picked a woman for his running mate…

    Hope you enjoy the Labor Day holiday. I’ll be back to add snarky comments to your blog on Tuesday!


    Comment by Diana-NYC | August 29, 2008 | Reply

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