Last Tuesday, as I flipped between channels, I was endlessly enthused by the number of people over 65 giving live interviews on television, and the number of people of all ages invoking their parents and grandparents.
Seeing older people acting as crucial sources of perspective in an election year, not as cute and endearing characters led onto camera or into stump speech anecdotes just to win our hearts over, was moving, orienting, and a joy.
Americans lending their life experience included veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, the average citizen who remembers the time before the Voting Rights Act, and the average citizen who remembers someone who remembered it. One station’s anchor reported (spontaneously, it seemed) on his phone call with his mother just after the race was called. A famed presidential historian was on air – and described her grandmother’s childhood. The 67-year-old Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, was, as always, a fount of stirring comments, but equally stirring to me were the leading questions of his interviewers: “I was just gonna ask,” one interrupted, “who it makes you think of, what are some of the names, what are some of the faces flying through your head right now?” It was the hugest night of the last four years, and it wasn’t the History Channel, but he was being invited to reminisce freely, the value of listening to him self-evident.
The names and faces flying through his head were Martin Luther King, President Johnson, President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, the “countless individuals that stood in those unmovable lines in Selma,” and those young people who gave their lives for the cause.
Before Tuesday, I had never calculated that my parents were 16 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated – I had never integrated the timeline of Civil Rights history with the timeline of my family history…to figure out when it was that, as my father proudly reports, my immigrant grandmother passionately encouraged him to join the movement.
Last night I heard a lecture by Kenyan-born author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He said he remembered two things when the race was called last Tuesday. First, he imagined the first African captured and taken to America, and second, he remembered the story of an African-American man who, when Obama won the Democratic nomination, ran to the graveyard of his parents and grandparents. He had not expected or planned to do that, Ngugi recalled, but when the moment came, he just “wanted to be with them.”
In a way, I think we’ve all “run to the graveyard of our parents and grandparents” with this news in our hearts – in honor of them, in honor of those buried around them; out of elation, gratitude, and nostalgia; with questions; for information, confrontation, and celebration; to be sobered, to be reminded, to be made grateful, to relate the news, to receive a blessing, to herald a new day, to recall the old days – just to spend time with the soil in which they were buried.
As Jews, we know that history is always relevant, reliving it an imperative, and as women, we can be confident that the stories less aired have just as much to teach. Maybe we, as a nation, are too scared to take the long (and wide) view sometimes, but a shared, popular, primetime willingness and excitement to do so is one of the many phenomena of this election that I hope sticks around through January and beyond.