Last night I saw the powerful film The Great Debaters, starring and directed by Denzel Washington, produced by Oprah Winfrey, also starring Forest Whitaker and the young Denzel Whitaker.
The film is based on the true story of the historically black Wiley College debate team and its coach, Melvin Tolson (played by Washington). In 1935 Texas was part of the Jim Crow south, a place where Negro men were called "boy" regardless of their age or the fact they spoke seven languages. Justice was for white people; blacks got a beating, if they were lucky, a lynch mob if they weren't.
Of course, set against the mental backdrop of Barack Obama's historic race for the presidency, an achievement that owes much to his skill at oratory, it was impossible not to do the math: 2008 minus 1935. In just over 70 years we've gone from a time when "In Texas, they lynch Negroes" is a factual statement to a time when "In Texas, Barack Obama won the Democratic caucus" is also factual.
"In Texas, they lynch Negroes." That was the phrase the young James Farmer (later one of the civil rights movement's leading figures) used to open his arguments in the film's climactic final debate with Harvard. It's hard to watch a film like this, to be reminded of how recently American blacks were second class citizens, with second class justice, second class education, but first class minds. The film deftly inspires heart pounding fury and fear, yet addresses the issues obliquely through the format of classic debate subjects of civil disobedience and the role of government.
I found my rage turning to hope, though, when I thought about the television clips I'd just seen, of Barack Obama being driven to the airport by Jordan's King Abdullah, of another leader correcting himself after nearly granting him the title of "president". In the film, the blacks lived in neat white houses and argued whether the Fireside Chats of President Roosevelt were a primary source. In reality, a black family may soon live in the White House; a black man may become the most powerful leader in the world.
That doesn't mean an end to injustice for African Americans—it's important to remember that the skin color of the occupants of the White House doesn't change the situation for millions of black Americans. More black men will still be in prison than in college. More black families will still live in poverty than in wealthy Texas suburbs. Nooses will still hang from ancient oak trees in places like Jena, Louisiana.
I hope Barack Obama is elected president in November because I like his policies. But I also crave his election as an act of redemption, because so many were never allowed to dream of such a thing, the James Farmers and the Melvin Tolsons. Or, to quote Langston Hughes, a contemporary of Tolson's,
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Rent the film, if you haven't seen it. And read the American Legacy article that inspired the film. And imagine that mighty dream of Langston Hughes.