President Obama & 94-year-old Black park ranger light up our nation, Christmas tree
By Audrey Peterman
When I saw a woman who grew up in the bosom of her former slave great-grand-mother embrace the President of the United States Dec. 3, the Biblical prophecy ran through my mind, “The stone that the builder refused shall become the cornerstone.”
Ninety-four year old Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest working park ranger in our country, introduced President Obama at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in President’s Park at the White House. She brought strong memories of her enslaved great-grandmother Leontine and clutched her photograph. When the President held her hand he pressed something into her palm, and gently closed her fingers over it. She looked down in wonder to find his Seal of the President of the United States.
If you don’t find that moment awesome, check your pulse. When someone with direct roots in slavery can ascend to be embraced and ad-mired by the President of the United States on the most joyous stage in the land, it’s evidence that our democratic ideals, “with liberty and justice for all” are alive and well. We have a long way to go to perfect our democracy, and I am proud of the efforts we are making to confront inequality and oppression. We must realize that democracy does not come wrapped up in a tidy little box to be set aside and observed. It has and will always require the commitment and vigilance of informed citizens who continually shape and refine it to more fully reflect our shared values.
Could the story of the President and Ranger Betty unfold in the America that some of today’s presidential candidates and their supporters espouse? I think not! So those who would take us back to the dark pit of tribalism and religious bigotry must be confronted with the evidence of how our baser nature served us ill in the past.
The National Park System is ground zero for this exploration as it protects our history at the place where it happened. Appropriately the President and the park ranger made history in one of our most prestigious units, President’s Park on the White House Ellipse.
For example, we’ve tried interning people before, with disastrous results. You can literally see that in the Japanese Internment at Manzanar and Minidoka National Historic Sites.
In 1988 the US Government sought to compensate for this taint by paying $20,000 and apologizing to each of the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who were removed from their homes and interned during WWII, solely because of their Japanese ancestry. Subsequently the camps were designated by Congress to be protected as parks and a cautionary tale.
The words “fascism” and “Hitler” are becoming a drum-beat in our national conversation, with one candidate drawing direct comparison. Ranger Soskin is among the few Americans today who have direct experience with the helishness represented by Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park to see and hear her.
President Obama left the climate talks in Paris where arguably the future of mankind was being determined, to be part of the 93-year-old tradition of lighting the Christmas tree. I imagine him filled with the anticipation of a schoolboy at the thought of meeting the real life park ranger who is older than the tradition by a year; who integrated the shipbuilding work-force in Richmond, California when women built the ships that helped win WWII; who helped develop the park that contains the artifacts of her work and today gives tours from memory to visitors from all over the world.
After their embrace the President expressed his appreciation for Betty and her great-grand-mother’s service. Then he quipped, “I want tips on how I can look that good at 94.”
“What sets us Americans apart is that we do not merely declare for liberty. We staunchly stand for it. To be an American is not only to know that you are born free, it is to have the courage to defend your freedom,” says one interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.
All Americans need to defend our freedoms. Too many people are telling me, “I just want to get away from the hate,” instead of organizing to confront it. It’s our responsibility to keep the light shining and a democracy in which we continue to progress to greater equality and justice. We cannot let the investment of Ranger Soskin’s great-great grandmother and all our ancestors go down in infamy.