Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Doug Wilder World Tour '07

Guess who I met last night? I guess it's not much of a challenge, given that his name's in the headline and there's a photo of him right here. That's right, L. Douglas Wilder, former governor of Virginia and current mayor of Richmond. He's on some sort of European tour with folks from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he teaches a class. Wilder spoke at Oxford's Harris Manchester College on the issue of race in America.

It's a subject that fascinates the British, who marvel that some of the same men who could pen the gloriously self-evident phrase "all men are created equal" could also own men, women and children they considered a little less equal. Wilder talked about fighting to keep Koreans free during the Korean War then returning home to a country where he wasn't totally free. He became a lawyer not expecting to be a politician. But a politician is what he became, the first African American state senator since Reconstruction and the country's first elected black governor.

His speech was not a detailed lecture, but an informal survey of 200 years of race relations in the U.S., delivered with a seasoned politician's smooth deployment of the telling anecdote. At the end he answered questions, including:

On gerrymandered political districts: Wilder made no apologies for his role in redrawing Virginia congressional districts so African American candidates would have a better chance of winning office. "Let me plead guilty," he said.

On the presidential race: Wilder thinks America might be ready for its first black president or its first female president. "When the thing is right, the time is right. People are always ahead of their leaders."

On the Democrats' chances for retaking the White House: Not a sure thing by any means, especially if they can't differentiate themselves enough from the Republicans. If a Giuliani or a Romney is elected, it will be "because the Democrats lost, not because the Republicans won."

On the war in Iraq: "It's very simple. You end it. Out. Fini. Over." Each service member's death, Wilder said, "diminishes us all.... I think you know where I stand on that issue."

On campaigning in the wilds of Southwest Virginia: Wilder said that his campaign to be Virginia's lieutenant governor took him to parts of the state he'd never visited before, rural mountain hamlets where, it was thought, a black man had no sense being. He would stop and shake every hand at every country store ("You can't go to one country store and not go to all of them," he said). Sitting on the barrel near the door of one, eyeing Wilder with a wary skepticism, was a white man in bib overalls, a bandanna tied around his neck, tobacco juice leaking from the corner of his mouth: the last unshaken hand in the room.

"I'd like to shake your hand," said Wilder. "I thought you might," said the man, who then added, "I got a question for you. What do you think about abortion?"

Wilder thought to himself, "I almost made it out of here," then launched into his "Jeffersonian" explanation for supporting Roe vs. Wade: The government has no right to interfere in personal decisions. The fellow piped up: "It's not a man's business anyway."

Wilder's point: "You can't judge a person by what they look like."

Renault Ad Update
Still no word from ad agency Publicis about Renault's clumsily insensitive "N-word" newspaper ad. As commenters on the post have pointed out, there was an N-word flap in Britain this year, when a white contestant on the reality show "Big Brother" was tossed after using the epithet.

I did speak to a person in the Guardian's ad department who said the advertiser was "mortified" and didn't think the ad would be taken that way.


suburbancorrespondent said...

Well, how did the advertiser think it would be taken? "Nanny?" "Nincompoop?" "Numbskull?"

mark from alexandria said...

First off, hey, congrats on your first "hater" at the bottom of the previous list of commenters!

As for Doug Wilder, I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the running for Governor to succeed Tim Kaine. There is no natural successor in place and he would certainly be preferrable to a return to power of former Senator (and former Governor) "Makaka" (to continue the theme of racial/cultural sensitivity). I dont know if any of the Washingtonians will recall the time several years ago when a White (European-American?)DC official was forced out of his job for using the word "niggardly" in a speech. Maybe that is the "n" word the Renault people were thinking of.

cktirumalai said...

Paul Robeson, actor, singer, and social and political thinker, lived in England for some 20 years, beginning in the late 1920s, and probably found it more hospitable than the America of that time.

Ken said...

Oh, I just remembered, on the N-word, it featured until recently on British tv nearly every second bank holiday - as the name of Guy Gibson's black labrador in the Dambusters film.

On the last few showings, they cut it out, I think.

suburbancorrespondent said...

I remember the "niggardly" brouhaha - political correctness run completely amok, is what that was.