LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Last night Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spoke to Democratic Party activists at a dinner in Wisconsin. They tried to highlight their differences on the economy ahead of the state's primary on Tuesday. As the two fight it out for the Democratic nomination, one thing is for sure: this will be an historic election.
Commentator Diane Roberts examines some of the history behind historic.
Professor DIANE ROBERTS (Florida State University): A hundred and sixty years ago in Seneca Falls, New York, activists Elizabeth Katie Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass called for the emancipation of both women and slaves.
Before the Civil War, abolitionism and feminism were inseparable, daring to take America's founding document seriously, especially the parts about liberty, justice and equality. But after 1865 the progressives split over who should get their inalienable rights first: women, white women, or former slaves - male slaves, that is.
Evidently there was no question of granting every American the right to vote. Elizabeth Katie Stanton and Susan B. Anthony felt that women had the longer history of oppression and so should have the first shot at full citizenship. Sojourner Truth, the famous ex-slave, agreed with Stanton and Anthony.
Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass, on the other hand, argued that the experience of slavery was so dehumanizing that black men should come first. The schism turned ugly. Douglass wondered, somewhat condescendingly, why women couldn't be satisfied with exercising political influence through their husbands, brothers and sons.
Elizabeth Katie Stanton wondered why women of wealth, education and refinement should stand aside while illiterate former slaves got to vote. Meanwhile, back in Washington white men weren't too keen on either women or blacks winning the franchise. By 1870 both the 14th and 15th amendments had passed guaranteeing equal protection under the law and voting rights, at least on paper.
But the reality was that African-Americans were prevented from voting in large numbers until the 1960s. White women did a little better, gaining the vote in 1920.
Now it's 2008. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are slugging it out in the race for the Democratic nomination. So the question remains: which is more fundamental, more essential - gender or race? Do you go for the white woman or the black man? Whose turn is it?
Despite the almost rabbinical parsing of which socio, racial, sexual, economic subgroup votes for which candidate and what that means, the cool truth is that some African-Americans are supporting a white woman and some whites are supporting a black man. Women are supporting a man and men supporting a woman.
Identity politics ain't what it used to be. In the celestial caucus room Elizabeth Katie Stanton is high-fiving Frederick Douglass.
HANSEN: Diane Roberts is a professor of literature and creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. And she joins us now from member station WFSU in Tallahassee. Welcome, Diane.
Prof. ROBERTS: Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: Race and gender have never factored in as prominently as they have in this election season. And given the conversations that Americans are having about this, we've also asked Poet E. Ethelbert Miller to join us in the studio today. He chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is the director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. Welcome, Mr. Miller, to you.
Mr. E. ETHELBERT MILLER (Howard University): Thank you.
HANSEN: Interesting essay. I'm interested, first of all, what went through your mind when you were hearing Diane's essay.
Mr. MILLER: Well, I liked how she closed her essay. I think it's very important that we don't look at history as if it's a rearview mirror. I think that when we look at what's taking place in 2008, we see the Obama campaign having the ability to transform American politics. We see Obama reaching out to a new generation of Americans.
Keep in mind we go back just a few years ago, we remember that there was a white woman on a major ticket.
HANSEN: Geraldine Ferraro.
Mr. MILLER: Geraldine Ferraro. Keep in mind that Geraldine Ferraro was probably on that ticket because a black man, Jesse Jackson, during the campaign said, okay, I would accept a woman on my ticket if I was elected. So you can see here, Jesse Jackson opened the door in terms of, you know, the rhetoric that we began to hear. And we've had a woman on a national ticket.
It's amazing how in 2008 you don't hear Geraldine Ferraro's name even being mentioned, as if it's just some sort of unique thing where Hillary just came out of nowhere.
HANSEN: We also seem to forget that we had a black woman running for president. That's...
Mr. MILLER: Right. Shirley Chisholm.
HANSEN: Shirley Chisholm.
Mr. MILLER: Correct.
HANSEN: Yeah. Diane, how do you react to what Mr. Miller has said about your essay and his response?
Prof. ROBERTS: Well, I agree with him and I think it's absolutely true. We should remember Shirley Chisholm, we should remember Geraldine Ferraro, and absolutely Jesse Jackson. The difference is, now there's a woman who is potentially the top of the ticket, could even end up president of the United States. And again, a black man in the same position.
I mean, Jesse Jackson did well but he didn't make it all the way. And I think that's just extraordinary. I mean, I don't want to do the Hillary side here as opposed to the Obama side because I think I'd be thrilled to death with either one. Either of them would be transformative. But I just know that I see, you know, with teaching college students, and I'm sure this is the case with you too, Ethelbert, that, you know, they're so excited for once. I mean, I usually have to yell at mine to go and vote and then they go, how do I do that again? And they're not asking how do I do that this year. They're really excited.
And some are excited about there being a woman, some are excited about there being a black man, some are just excited that they feel they have a choice.
HANSEN: E. Ethelbert Miller, I mean the fact is we have an African-American in a tight race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States, and whites are voting for him. But does that say something to you about how far we have come as a country?
Mr. MILLER: Well, keep in mind, you know, we have come far in terms of looking at the success of Obama in those states. But we can't overlook, you know, acts of racism, and that has taken place in the same time. You know, we've been talking more about nooses the last several months as if they were delegates.
So I think that we have to look at what's happening around our society. In many communities police brutality still an issue. Electing a black person to the White House is not going to resolve these issues. I think it does show you where we are in terms of our overall society. And keep in mind, you know, when we look at our administrations, we've had Albright, we've had Condoleezza Rice, we have Colin Powell, all in key policy-making positions. We even have Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court.
I mean, so what happens is that, you know, the black presence, and also women, should not be something that we should be shocked about. Also when you talk to young white children around the country, their concept of race is different. They're not growing up like their grandparents.
HANSEN: Diane Roberts, in your essay you say some white women are supporting Obama, some men are supporting Clinton. And it's always interesting talking about this idea of who's going to get the first turn at it. Do you really perceive that there's harmony here or is there actually some pitting feminism against civil rights?
Prof. ROBERTS: I think there is some pitting of whether we work harder on racism than we do on giving women the top slot. And I really do think that question of whose turn it is comes up. I wish it didn't. But you know, just the symbolic importance that we are able to choose between people who had historically represented the disenfranchised and even the non-citizen is significant to us. It takes a long time to get people's brains wrapped around a new world.
HANSEN: Diane Roberts is a professor of literature and creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and she joins us from the studios of member station WFSU in Tallahassee. Diane, thank you so much.
Prof. ROBERTS: Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: E. Ethelbert Miller is a poet. He chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is the director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. And before we let you go, Mr. Miller, you've actually brought in an original poem with you. And we'd like to leave our audience with it.
Mr. MILLER: I'll read this poem, "Divine Love." I wish I had loved you many years ago. I would have loved you like Ellington loved jazz and Bearden loved scissors. I would have loved you like Langston loved Harlem and the blues loved Muddy Waters. I would have loved you like Douglass loved to read and Garvey loved parades. I would have loved you like Zora loved stories and Dubois loved suits. I would have loved you like Louis loved boxing and Mahalia loved to sing. I would have loved you like Carver loved peanuts and Wheatley loved poems. I would have loved you like Jimmie loved Lorraine and Ozzie loved Ruby. I would have loved you like Martin loved Jesus and Malcolm loved Allah.
HANSEN: E. Ethelbert Miller, thank you so much.
Mr. MILLER: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.