Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Life of Virginia McLaurin

Yesterday I posted the video of Virginia McLaurin dancing as she met President and Michelle Obama at the White House. While it was an inspiring moment, it certainly doesn't qualify as "breaking news." But the story Colby Itkowitz tells about the life of Ms. McLaurin captures a bit of Americana that gives us a glimpse into how far we've come as a country during this woman's 106 years on the planet so far. It also provides us with some important context about our politics today.

Ms. McLaurin was born in South Carolina in 1909 - just 44 years after the end of the Civil War. She picked cotton and shucked corn as a child and married at the age of 13 - moving to New Jersey with her husband. When he died she moved to Maryland and did domestic work to support herself and her two children. She now has too many grandkids to count - but as Itkowitz writes, "Her grandkids’ grandchild has a kid."

It is hard to imagine all the history Ms. McLaurin has witnessed. As a commenter here wrote yesterday, her life so far covers 44% of this country's existence. When it comes to what it means to be a Black woman during all those years, here is what she had to say:
As a child growing up in the South, she said she didn’t imagine that there could ever be a world where white and black people were integrated. When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Washington, she didn’t know whether his dream would ever be realized.
“This was white and this was black. There were so many things we weren’t allowed to do, we were raised up like that,” she said. “I felt like it would always be that way.”
By the time Dr. King marched in Washington, Ms. McLaurin was already 54 years old. Half of her life had been lived prior to passage of things like the Civil Rights Act. So one can understand why she says, "I felt like it would always be that way."

And yet Ms. McLaurin not only lived to see the Civil Rights Movement, she also witnessed the election of this country's first African American president. It's clear that she is proud - not only of his family, but of the way he has handled himself in office. That is why she told Itkowitz that, "I can die smiling now."

Ms. McLaurin's story helps me understand why I've heard so many African Americans talk about how, in the homes of their mothers and grandmothers, a picture of the Obama family has been placed next to their family photos. His presidency represents the hopes they carried through their difficult journey in this country. In many ways, that makes him a part of the family.

If you've ever wondered about the visceral reaction from Black people to any disrespect shown to President Obama by politicians, candidates and their surrogates, it is the history that Ms. McLaurin has lived that explains it. The issue is not about whether one agrees with the President. It's about showing respect to a member of their family who realized a hope they dared not dream would actually happen in their lifetimes.

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