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The Uncertainty of Hope



I voted for Hillary Clinton.

Saying it out loud now sounds almost like a confession: Black Man Votes Against Barack Obama.

But my vote in Georgia's Democratic primary on Super Tuesday wasn't about being for or against either candidate, for Clinton or against Obama.

The only thing I'm against is almost eight years of a disastrous administration that has embraced incompetence as practically a religious tenet. "Browny, you're doing a heck of a job." Good grief.

The only thing I'm for is getting those people (the spread-democracy-at-the-point-of-a-gun people) out of there, now.

So my vote was a cold, cynical calculation: I could not bring myself to believe that this country would actually elect a black man as president. Okay, let's put that more bluntly. I could not accept that a majority-white populace would choose to put a black man in charge of, well, you know, them.

I know, I know, that attitude is so yesterday. It's backward thinking, unworthy of the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 40th anniversary of his death. Barack Obama seems to be the ultimate realization of King's dream – a black man seeking the nation's top job based not on the color of his skin, but the content of his character.

There are lots of people in my life who tell me I'm wrong to be so cynical. My son, 26, says it. So does my brother, just turning 40, and my girlfriend, 43. And the wonderfully idealistic, 30-something white reporters who work for me are downright giddy about Obama.

But understand, my cynicism comes hard-earned. I'm 54. I grew up in a segregated Memphis where as a child I rode in the back of the bus. I went to the Mid-South Fair on Negro Day. (If you're too young to know about that, ask your parents.)

In the Memphis and the South and the America of much of my life, race mattered – too often, it mattered most.

It mattered that day when, as a teenager walking down Beale Street, two white policemen suddenly rolled up and put me in the back of a squad car as a suspect in a purse snatching. What mattered at that moment wasn't that I was an honor student en route to two Ivy League degrees and a successful career as a journalist. What mattered was that I was black.

The white, female victim had described her attacker as a "black man with a bushy Afro," a description which in 1971 probably fit half the black men in Memphis. I could just see it – cops all over town snatching up black men with 'fros.

And whenever I start thinking all that doesn't matter anymore, something seems to come along to say otherwise. Like the white guy who called me names – "boy" is the one I remember – when I didn't move quickly enough to suit him at an ATM. That happened just a few weeks ago.

Still, my family and friends keep telling me to have hope, that hope was at the heart of King's dream. Meanwhile, Obama racks up primary victories and votes, including millions of white votes.

Maybe they're right – my son, my brother, my girlfriend, my white colleagues. Maybe they're all right. Maybe I am a dinosaur.

Lord, I hope so. M

Larry Conley served as editor of Memphis magazine from 1985 to 1990.

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