Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Thoughts of ice cream, mutts and Robeson

I woke up in tears this morning.  

So many memories flooded back in the chaotic jumble that is my life, brain, history.

Some things are just beginning to sink in as I wait for Tuesday, and all of a sudden the flood of emotions became tears again.  I cried on election night.  I cried during speeches at the convention.

Me.  The hard-nosed radical feminist.  

And it’s okay cause I’ve got plenty tissues here.

Tears wash the soul.

As is my usual, I scanned the morning news, and stumbled across a piece by Chip Johnson in the San Francisco Chronicle: Old memory sparked by Obama victory speech .  Tears welled up again as I read it.  He struck a chord.  

He wrote:

I can’t speak for the millions of African Americans who watched President-elect Barack Obama take center stage in Chicago’s Grant Park in November, but for me it conjured up images of a 40-year-old memory I thought was long forgotten.

For some reason, I suddenly found myself remembering a bike ride I took with friends when I was 11 or 12. I’d really never thought about it since that day – and I still don’t understand why – but there it was.

It was me and Harvey Haynes and Marc White. We biked 6 miles from Oberlin to South Amherst, Ohio, a tiny town of no more than 2,000 people. The main business was a state DMV test center at the town’s only gas station. Everyone I know got their first driver’s license there, including me and Harvey and Marc.

But that would be years later and on that particular afternoon we were headed to the ice cream shop on State Route 113, across the street from the gas station. That’s when the police stopped us – on our bikes.

At the time, we didn’t realize that it was most likely our varying degrees of skin color that gave us away in an all-white town. I’m mixed race and so is Marc. Harvey was a dark-skinned African American.

The policeman asked us where we were from and why we weren’t in school. We told him we had the day off, had ridden our bikes into town and wanted to buy ice cream.


He told us that because the kids in South Amherst were in school, we weren’t allowed to be in town and we would have to leave – and we did.

I thought of ice cream, as I read the rest of his column, and the memory of a hot summer day in Princess Anne Maryland, a Jim Crow town, came back if it was yesterday.  

Me, at age 5 walking down the street with my hand in my mom’s.  I was tired and cranky, and we passed an ice cream shop.  I asked my mother to buy me a cone.  She used to treat me with one when we shopped in Brooklyn where we had lived before moving South after my father lost work during the days of the blacklists.

She looked down at me and said softly “No.” adding, “we are not welcome in that store”.

A little red-headed freckle faced white boy stood by the window of the store, licking his ice cream cone, slowly with great relish.  He looked to be about my age, or maybe a year or two older. He stared at me through the plate glass window, stopped licking his cone for a minute, and stuck his tongue out at me.  

There were no words.  Just that gesture that said it all  “Nah nah nah…you can’t come in here little colored girl and have an ice cream like me”.

I froze and just stared back at him, unblinking till he looked away.  Resentful about the unfairness of it all.  Why?  Why did we have to move to this hateful place? Why, why were we stuck in a town where we weren’t wanted? Why was my dad a “different race” from his mom, my beloved grandmother?  

After a moment that seemed much longer, my mom yanked me away.

I wonder where that kid is now?   Perhaps he was just being a kid.  He would be in his 60’s.  Did he vote for Barack Obama?

No matter.  

Johnson’s piece continues with his thoughts on Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race:

Obama spoke to me

For me, it was the first time in 50 years that any politician had ever sounded like he was speaking directly to me. Obama said exactly what I believed, and I was envious and wished I’d written it – because it’s been played out in my own family for generations. Both of my parents are mixed race and there are stories about my mom’s family in Atlanta that go back to the Jim Crow South in the late 1920s.

Now in her 90s, my mom told me about the time a bus driver pulled over, walked up to my mom and my aunt, and ordered them to get up and move behind “those good white folks” but stay in front of the dark-skinned blacks. Humiliated, embarrassed and intimidated all at once, they rang the bell, jumped off at the next stop and walked home.

What Obama conveyed – and most of the nation obviously understood – is that he was talking about all Americans, because whether you like it or not – that’s who we are – and what our nation was always intended to be.

In a self-deprecating moment, Obama has referred to himself as mixed-breed “mutt” and it’s a description that has never been more appropriate.

I’m a mutt too.  And when you think about it we all are here in the United States of America.  I thought about that for a while and my helter-skelter thoughts went haywire again and I skipped to thinking about America and my birthday the year after we escaped the south, and my thoughts flew to Paul Robeson who sang happy birthday to me, and in my mind I hear his mellifluous basso voice singing a song I sang to myself a lot as a kid; having heard him do it in concert.

He recorded it the year I was born – in 1947.


What is America to me?

A name, a map or a flag I see,

A certain word, “Democracy”,

What is America to me?

The house I live in,

The friends that I have found,

The folks beyond the railroad

and the people all around,

The worker and the farmer,

the sailor on the sea,

The men who built this country,

that’s America to me.

The words of old Abe Lincoln,

of Jefferson and Paine,

of Washington and Jackson

and the tasks that still remain.

The little bridge at Concord,

where Freedom’s Fight began,

of Gettysburg and Midway

and the story of Bataan.

The house I live in,

my neighbors White and Black,

the people who just came here

or from generations back,

the town hall and the soapbox,

the torch of Liberty,

a home for all God’s children,

that’s America to me.

The house I live in,

the goodness everywhere,

a land of wealth and beauty

with enough for all to share.

A house that we call “Freedom”,

the home of Liberty,

but especially the people,

that’s America to me.

But especially the people–that’s

the true America…

Corny perhaps.  But this song from the lips of a man driven out of his own country by racism, and politics. He will always be one of my heroes.

So many heroes and sheroes.  None who have lived to see the day that will dawn on Tuesday.  My mom and dad.  Barack’s mom and grandma.

Johnson ends his piece with a list of dates:

Civil rights milestones

Civil rights as an issue in American politics dates to the very beginnings of the nation – Massachusetts outlawed slavery in 1783. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and civil rights progress inched forw
ard until the birth of the modern movement.

1954: In the first significant victory for modern civil rights, the Supreme Court of the United States declares school segregation unconstitutional in the ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education. The ruling, which overturned the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling that permitted “separate but equal” racial segregation, paved the way for desegregation across the country.

1955: Rosa Parks, a member of the NAACP, refuses to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., as required by city ordinance. Her arrest leads to the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasts more than a year; its leaders include the newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

1957: The South Christian Leadership Conference is founded on the principle of nonviolent civil disobedience and becomes an important organizer of the civil rights movement; King is its first president. The same year, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus uses the National Guard to try to block nine black students from attending all-white Central High School in Little Rock. President Dwight Eisenhower sends in federal troops to ensure their admission.

1960: Four black college students begin a sit-in at lunch counter at Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, N.C. The sit-in leads to more protests across the Deep South.

1962: President Kennedy sends federal troops to the University of Mississippi to quell riots so that James Meredith, the school’s first black student, can attend.

1963: Violence increases in May as hoses and dogs are first used on protesters in Birmingham, Ala. The televised images result in sympathy and support for the civil rights movement. In August, 200,000 people march on Washington, where King delivers his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial.

1964: Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, declaring discrimination based on race to be illegal.

1965: Congress passes the Voting Rights Act. Black voter registration soars.

1968: King is assassinated in Memphis.

1973: Maynard Jackson of Atlanta is elected the first black mayor of a major Southern city.

1989: Army Gen. Colin Powell becomes the first black person to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

1989: Douglas Wilder of Virginia becomes the first black elected governor.

2008: Barack Obama becomes the first African American elected president.

It is not comprehensive.  I could probably add many more – there are names like Sojournor Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Charlene Mitchell…that are missing, but it will have to do for now.  

Wasn’t why I wrote this diary anyway.  

So on Tuesday, I will snuggle under a quilt, turn on C-Span, and treat myself to an ice-cream cone.  My 3 dogs (all mutts like me) will share the bed.  I have a big box of tissues on the nightstand.

I’ll need them.

cross-posted at Daily Kos



  1. He really does speak to all Americans, this is the most significant of the new things he brings to the table.  

    The fact that he speaks to your story – and to Chip Johnson’s – is profound and amazing and most of the message out there today.  That’s understandable, because those stories are more sharp and poignant than mine and people who share my kind of personal racial history.  It was my grandfather who buried his foreign (German) roots, not myself.  It was my great-great-great grandfather who was the mixed-race child in Georgia, not me.

    My own life has been the white kid aware of those injustices and often incapable of bridging that gap – much like Barack’s own mother’s life.  Barack’s father shows in his face but his mother shows in his actions.  He understands my life as well as he understands yours – there has never been anyone who has understood us both so well.  The cliches of neither the white liberal nor the black activist are the basis of his lexicon.  Those were the books that he was schooled  from, learning both the lessons they intended and the follies they included.

    The most amazing point of all of this – lost, I think, in the flurry of the moment – is that Barack Obama is not the first black president.  He’s not the last white president.  

    He’s the first president that can’t be defined by either.  

  2. your diaries are so rich and interesting – i LOVE them.  

    they also – before – made me feel better about obama.  i have been meaning to write a diary about that soon, but let’s just say that it took me a while to ‘come to obama’ – but in reading stories like this about what others see in this historic moment – really touch me – so thank you!

  3. We were born the same year. That’s where the similarities end. I was born a white male in a northern state. The difference between the South and the North was even greater back then than it is now. In 1964, we had a black quarterback at our predominately white high school who dated a white girl. He might have been hung if he lived in the South.

    I had no black friends until I entered the workforce. My parents were both somewhat conservative, yet never instilled a sense of racism in their children. There was some that we picked up simply because that’s what it was like in those times, but none of us had hard held racist views. Any I had quickly vanished once I started working side by side with black men and women. I think those days at General Motors had a lot to do with the colorblind outlook I developed during my early adulthood.

    Reading your diary reminded me that I was 16 years old when MLK gave his famous speech. Now, my grandson is 16 as an African-American prepares to take the oath of office for the presidency of the United States. What a great moment in history. I feel great hope for our country.

  4. …all those entwined miseries and hopes that form the warp and weft of the United States, in some way they will be gathered together on Tuesday. Obama is just a man, and stands on the shoulders of all those unknown heroes and heroines who have blazed a way for him. But somehow on Tuesday something magnificent and unexpected and honourable will have been accomplished. Some kind of promise will have been kept.

    I cannot imagine what Tuesday will mean for you, Denise, or any other American. But so many people beyond your shores will also feel it. We are all mutts. My kid brother, Half Bajian Half Scottish, feels it particularly acutely, since he is a mutt in much the same fashion as Obama. But millions in Kenya will also feel it. And people with the name Hussein. And really anyone of any decency, who can appreciate that a smart sincere talented politician can succeed, regardless of roots, but through the content of his character.

    Kudos to all you over there for doing this x

  5. DeniseVelez

    the concert.

    Never thought I’d live to see Pete Seeger up there serenading a Prez and all of us with the radical lyrics of This Land is Your Land.

  6. spacemanspiff

    Even if I’m on the lighter side.

    De mas esta decirte, how much I enjoy your diaries Denise!

    p.s. Parcha y Coco natural ice cream for me!

  7. Your humanity, decency and personal honesty shine through in this entry.  Thank you for allowing us to see the world from your eyes and heart.

    I find that are very few things more powerful or compelling than the kind of writing you demonstrated here.

    – gadfly

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