Is America ready to vote black?

  • 8 November 2006
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Twenty years ago, while travelling across the deep south of the US I happened into the town of Waycross, Georgia, close to the Okefenokee swamplands. I was sitting outside a diner, jawing with the local good ol' boys. One of them struck a matchhead off the heels of his boots, lit his cigarette and started mouthing off. He turned out to be an elected sheriff from a nearby town and he was running – or so he said – on a segregationist ticket.

"It's not that we hate the niggers, it's just that we don't want 'em," he said. "They ruin the view, don't ya think?"

I had learned enough in my travels to appreciate the phrase, "Whatever you say, say nothing." Later in the day, the sheriff invited me home to meet his family. We drove back to his rural house in a pick-up festooned with a giant Confederate flag and three rifles bouncing in the gunrack. His view – unspoiled – was of endless cypress trees.

I spent the next two days in the sherrif's family house, a guest sleeping in their living room, eating at their dinner table. The sheriff was all about "state's rights" (meaning the right of states to pass Jim Crow laws regulating the conduct of races), "freedom of association" (separating the races) and "less government".

So he was very much the public face of American racism.

But on my second night in the sherrif's house, an extraordinary thing happened. We were at the dinner table with his wife and children when there was a screech of tyres outside. We ran up the road to the corner where a lone car had smashed into a tree. Inside, the occupants, an African-American family, were shaken up. The father had cut his forehead. I watched the sheriff tear off his shirt and apply it to the black man's forehead.

The sheriff arranged for an ambulance to come to look after the father, who needed stitches. The mother protested. "We ain't got no money," she pleaded, but the sheriff waved her protests away. At the hospital, doctors insisted the injured black man stay overnight. The woman trembled, but the sheriff lay a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry," he said, "y'all can sleep the night in my place."

The bed in which the children were tucked had a Confederate flag bedspread. In the morning, the sheriff was busy cooking pancakes for the family. The black woman sat terrified, but then began to slowly eat.

When the father was checked out of hospital, not only did the sheriff pay the bill, he also had their car repaired, free of charge.

Later in the day – when the black family was gone – I must have looked stunned, or happy, or both. "What's bit ya, son?" he asked.

"Aren't you running on a segregationist ticket?"

"Shit yeah, why?" We sat in silence for a while and then he slapped his knee uproariously. "Hell," he said, "everyone's human."


In the wake of the midterm elections, all the talk is of who will be the Democratic nominee for president and you could be forgiven for thinking – if you pass any newsstand in America – that Barack Obama is the man the country is making breakfast for. Obama is just 45 years old, an Illinois senator, handsome, charming, articulate, dedicated, concillatory – and black.

Obama has a good resume behind him: he was star of the Democratic National Convention in 2004, he won Illinois by a landslide, he's a former Harvard man, he's been on Oprah, his bestseller The Audacity of Hope is in its sixth printing, he professes a Christian background and he's very much a centre-of-the-road politician. He has been rolled out on the American political scene like a brand-new commodity – and he lives up to much of his billing.

Yet much of the talk still centres around his being of African-American heritage and whether or not the country can accept that – 40 years removed from the Civil Rights movement.

The gulf between the private and the public American has always been a huge issue in American politics. Just like the sheriff – who outwardly voted segregationist, but inwardly practiced decency – the question for American politics these next few months will be which American voter will arrive at the polls over the next couple of years.

Can America handle it? Has the country grown up enough in recent times to separate from the infantilisation that George Bush has subjected it to? Can Obama win? Is there a way that the Okefenokee sheriff of 20 years ago can finally take his vote from the inside of his home and bring it, at last, to the polling booth?

"Hell," the echo goes. "Everyone's human."

We wait in hope.