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Race in America: Obama changes the reality of racial interaction for some

SCRANTON, Pa. — The man on stage is smiling and laughing and saying things like, "If we can unify … then there would be no problem we could not solve as Americans."

The people on the floor are black and white and wearing T-shirts that say OBAMA. They stand and cheer, and so does Diane Boone, who is collecting her things now, and walking out of the gymnasium to her beat-up Chevy Lumina to return to a house with no heat, where the dry-erase board in the dining room says "What we want to accomplish in 6 months," then, "0 debt," then "permanent residence," then "poised and stylish."

She leaves with hope that a black man can be president, but if anyone knows the realities of how race plays out in America, it's Boone, who publishes a local newspaper for African-Americans, who is dropping her keys and picking up her phone and clicking through her voice mail for a message she saved from a few weeks ago.

"I don't want your freaking jungle-bunny newspaper in my freaking mailbox," the caller says. "I don't like you f------ n------."

When Boone moved to Scranton more than a decade ago, her new white neighbors organized an unprecedented neighborhood watch. A store clerk dropped change into her palm so their hands wouldn't touch. Schoolyard skirmishes became racially charged.

"It became, 'A black kid beat up our white kid.' "

Boone absorbed the experience and reacted.

She saw flaws in the black community. Separation. Anger. Apathy.

"Our biggest race problem is that we don't participate," she says. "We don't have that sense of giving. We don't understand that you have to give in order to receive.

"I used to say at the PTA meetings: 'I love my kids like you love yours,' " she says. "But I can understand why they thought we don't care about our kids. Because we weren't going to the PTA meetings."

That's why Obama's ascent has begun to change the realities of racial interaction in places like this, she says.

That Obama is on stage at all means something. He is black, he is on the verge of securing the Democratic nomination for president in a year when the Democrat could really win, he is a mainstream politician with a fringe candidate biography.

He is a lesson.

"You can work with people," says Boone, "instead of getting mad and angry."

• • •

Here comes Boone, 50, through the doors of Penn Security Bank & Trust, and into the office of Frank Gardner, who is wearing a sticker that says, "Home Equity Loan Sale."

"I spoke to them and they want to build the church," she says.

"Great!" he says.

"The pastor is really excited," she says.

"I'm assuming he's representing his church board?"

"Right."

"You want to be involved in this too, right?" he asks.

"Of course," she says. "If they'll let me."

"Well, it'll be good to have a friendly face there."

The bank is looking for ways to reach into the black community and Shiloh Baptist Church wants a new building.

Boone is bridging the gap, a foot in each world.

She moved here in the early '90s, when her brother's company relocated from Newark, N.J. She came for a visit and stayed for the fresh air and clean streets. The single mom with five kids who escaped an abusive relationship says that's when locals began talking about the "undesirables" moving to Scranton. The African-American population here grew from 1,290 in 1990 to 2,326 in 2006. That's in a city with about 72,000 residents, a city where the day after Obama's town hall meeting, a woman approaches Boone from behind in a coffee shop, then cranes her neck to see Boone's face.

"I thought you were Whoopi Goldberg," the woman says.

Boone smiles politely.

"I get that a lot," she says when the woman walks away.

Her kids thought Scranton was paradise, and it was better than the high-rise housing projects in Newark. No more broken elevators or bars on the schoolhouse windows.

Meanwhile, Boone worked to become that bridge. She serves on more boards and panels than she can name. The council of economic development, transportation planning committee, East Scranton Business Association, Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce.

She organized a Unity Festival that drew 200 people four years ago and 1,000 this year. Last year she hosted a black history month dinner and sold 200 tickets.

"It's a nice mix," a woman told the local paper. "It brings people together."

White politicians ate oxtails, fried chicken and collard greens.

"This was my goal," Boone says later. "To have us sitting together and eating together."

• • •

Boone climbs the stairs to her office, past the shower that needs new tile, past the bedroom crawling with week-old kittens, past her "Dream Board," which is adorned by a clipping of a Jaguar, a vista in Zanzibar and a mock cover of Editor & Publisher magazine.

"Publisher of the Year 2009," the headline reads. Beneath is her picture. "Diane V. Boone, Melanian News."

The graceful woman who begins her days with yoga started the paper in 2002 as a newsletter, a way to bring black people together and introduce them to Scranton. Boone had taken a correspondence course in journalism from one of those schools that advertise on daytime television. She was working on the dock at the U.S. Postal Service and in her free time, shooting photos of kids in the community, highlighting business owners and dropping in bits of black history.

The demand grew. She switched to newsprint to save money and now distributes 5,000 copies to 250 locations every other month.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell named Boone one of the state's "Best 50 Women In Business." If you call the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce to ask for contacts for black business owners, the woman who answers says: "We have one," and gives Boone's number.

Without black-owned businesses, it's hard to get advertising. She was injured on the job and fights the Postal Service for worker's compensation. She had to sell the antique doors in her house for $1,300 on eBay to pay the bills.

She's realistic about the challenges. But the woman whose bookshelves are lined with the works of Melville and Donald Trump doesn't dwell on them.

"You get what you focus on. And if you're focused on the negative, that's all you'll get," she says. "That's the problem with Rev. Wright. He's still angry about all those things he's been focusing on for years. We all have that anger. I know some things aren't quite right here, but I can get past that."

She focuses on making enough money from the paper to provide for her children. Medinah, 18, is a high school senior who is "in love" with Obama and has persuaded five of her friends, most of them white, to register and vote for him because "he's awesome." Saffy, her 19-year-old son, is a high school dropout who is now clomping up the stairs and into her office.

"I got a job," he says.

Saffy's GED certificate hangs on the wall. A teacher once told Boone her son was "smart for a black boy," she says. But ask Saffy about racism here, and he says, "All that's over. That racist stuff, it's over." His experience is different from his mother's, even as they overlap. He is beginning his life in the America of Barack Obama, not of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Today was his first day packing rolls of flexible foam into tractor trailers for $8 an hour. It's full time, but temporary, he says.

At that rate, with taxes, he'll have to work a week to afford the $180 round-trip bus ticket to Richmond, Va., where his son, Trey, lives with his ex-girlfriend.

He has thought about moving closer, but that means saving for a deposit on an apartment, and buying a car, and putting gas in the tank to make the trip.

"I'm tired of all this," he says. "I'm just gonna seclude myself and move to Tahiti. Is that a place? Tahiti?"

"I don't want you to give up," she tells him. "You're a man with a plan for a family."

"I'm gonna be there for Trey," Saffy says. "I just don't know about her (the ex-girlfriend)."

"You've gotta rise above the typical," she tells him. "You can't be the father who's never there."

"I'm too young for this," he says.

"No you're not," she says. "This is where it starts. Messing up isn't as bad as it appears when you focus on fixing it."

• • •

The afternoon fades. Boone is on the computer. She thinks she's going to write about Obama's town hall meeting in the next edition. She won't endorse him; it's best a journalist remain neutral. But she does support him. She wants to share his lesson.

On her desk is a copy of Newsweek. Obama's on the cover. Headline: "Black & White." The story is about a man who had to get a security detail early in his campaign after a string of racist e-mails were sent to his Senate office, a man some think is too black and others think is not black enough, a man who has made a career out of "reconciling opposing sides."

The biggest setback to his campaign came last month, when video clips surfaced of his spiritual adviser and former pastor, the man who married the Obamas and christened their children, saying things that were decidedly impolitic. If not antiwhite, antiwhite America.

In essence, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright got busted for being an angry black man. And, by association, so did Obama.

Obama's answer was a 37-minute televised speech delivered down the road in Philadelphia that sought to put Wright's feelings into the context of his experience. What was most remarkable wasn't Obama's words, it was that a major political candidate is able and willing to talk about the nuances of race, to acknowledge there are differences in life experience.

For an African-American woman in Scranton, Pa., that alone is change enough.

"He has proven that we have a chance," she says. "We can't make excuses anymore. That's the hope he brings. He has changed the dynamics."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Race in America: Obama changes the reality of racial interaction for some 04/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 5:21pm]

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