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Living the American dream

My father was a Tunica, Miss., sharecropper — disconnected from government, distrustful of white people and disdainful of anyone who believed the black man could ever get a fair shake in this America.

He died in my hometown, St. Louis, in the year 2000 at the age of 87, clinging to an honest belief that travel to the moon was a hoax. He counseled me in 1976 when I was 13 that book-learnin’ should take a back seat to brick-layin’ since, after all, I’d eventually have to make a living.

I rejected his view of America, or at least I thought I did. A product of the 1967 Head Start program, I had been given every advantage a poor kid from an urban ghetto could ask. But maybe I’d been influenced more by my father than I thought.

I remember him being really angry at me only once in my life. It was probably around the same year as the brick-laying conversation.

I’d been in school studying U.S. presidents, and we were reading about Thomas Dewey falsely being declared winner of the 1948 presidential race. My fascination with newspapers already percolating, I was mesmerized by the photo of Harry Truman, the real victor, holding the Chicago Tribune with the “Dewey Beats Truman” headline.

I talked with everyone who’d listen. Eventually, I realized that my father was one of the few people I knew who would’ve been old enough to vote in 1948. I was pretty excited about discussing it with him. The conversation went something like this:

“Daddy, who’d you vote for in 1948, Dewey or Truman?”

“Boy, go’on somewhere an’ s’down.”

“Really, Daddy, this is important. It’s for school. Who did you vote for?”

“Boy, I’done told you to leave me alone.”

“But I just …”

“Fool, don’t you know nothin’? If I’d even been thinkin’ about talkin’ about votin’ somebody be done took a two-by-four upside my head.”

“Oh.”

Fast forward to the summer of 2007. The primaries are in full swing. I’m in Columbus with my then 11-year-old daughter, driving down Blackmon Road toward my home, and my daughter asks me if I will vote for Barack Obama. I tell her that as the editor of the newspaper I can’t talk about my personal politics, even to her.

“Come on, Daddy. You can tell me.”

“Really, Baby, you know Daddy doesn’t talk about that kind of stuff. Besides, whether I vote for him or not doesn’t matter. There will never be a black president in my lifetime. Or in yours.”

“But Daddy, how can you say that if he’s the best person?”

“Well, Baby, that’s just the way it is.”

“But why?”

I didn’t have a good answer.

My daughter, who has inherited my fascination with the presidency, browbeat me all the way home. She told me that I should be ashamed for my lack of faith in our country — and I was. I was genuinely chastened.

You see, just like her father, she realized that this was not her father’s America. Her grandfather was trying to protect his child from disappointment, just as I was. But both he and I failed to recognize one of the central tenets of parenthood — that we are to allow our children to think and dream of possibilities that exceed their parents’ imagination.

Ben Holden is Vice-President and Executive Editor of the Ledger-Enquirer. He’s traveling to Washington where on Tuesday he’ll witness what he told his daughter wouldn’t happen.

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