Several years ago, Amos passed away from cancer. During the short time that I knew him, I learned a lot about racial issues in America. That's because he was from a mixed racial background, like our president-elect. Amos's father was white, his mother was black, and part Seminole. In those days, there was a whole vocabulary for racial blood quantum. Words like quadroon and octaroon denoted one-fourth black and one-eighth black. But to most whites back in those days, "one drop of black blood" made a person black. Amos's American Indian heritage was not even discussed. Amos's family moved from Georgia to the north because there were laws against miscegenation (mixed marriage) in the 1920s (and those laws stayed on the books until the Civil Rights movement in 1967, when the Supreme Court struck them down as unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia).
Once the family arrived in Ohio, Amos and his brother and sister grew up outside of the Jim Crow south, and themselves leading very different lives from each other, not because of their divergent interests, but because of the color of their skin. Amos's sister Nelly was dark-skinned with African features and his brother Ross was light-skinned and chose to "pass" for white. Amos was coffee-colored, and a portrait of him as a young man reminded me of Nat King Cole.
In the 1940s, unable to find a job, Amos decided to enlist in the Air Force. An old black-and-white photo of his boot camp graduating class shows something startling: an all-black unit. Back then, the armed forces were segregated by race. When blood was spilled, it was not enough that young Americans were dying for their country. In the eyes of the military, white blood and black blood could not mix, even on the battlefield where death is the great equalizer. Amos was posted to active duty in Spain, where he met his future bride, a black-eyed, raven-haired, fiery Spaniard. They married in Gibraltar-not because race would prevent them from doing so in Spain in the late 1950s, but because religious beliefs would: in Spain, a Catholic could not marry a Protestant.
They had two sons, and after Amos's retirement from the Air Force, they moved back home. There isn't a happy ending. Many years later, he died of cancer just after his retirement from a local school system, where he had worked as a janitor and a bus driver. I didn't know him long enough to know what his dreams were, but he spoke of his disappointments, and it seemed he was thwarted from achieving his dreams because of the color of his skin.
This is an American story, like Barack Obama's. I wonder about Obama's personal pain and untold stories. Was Obama taunted like Amos's children for the color of his father's skin? Did Obama sometimes feel like he was being forced to choose between his black family and his white family, like Amos's son did? Was Obama teased for speaking another language like Amos's son was? Has Obama ever been accused of representing "the mongrelization of the white race" like Amos's son was by a Ku Klux Klan member? Had Obama's father lived in America, would he have been denied a room in a snowstorm because he was black, being forced to sleep in a car and losing a foot to frostbite like Amos's fellow airman en route to duty at the Air Force Academy? America is full of Barack Obamas. On Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday and the eve of the inauguration of America's first black president, I wonder if Amos ever dared to dream that this day would come.
In this era of change I hope that America is ready to bury the hatred and bigotry of the past, and will allow all of the young men and women like Amos to achieve their dreams and full potential, fulfilling Dr. King's dream in the process.