Tuesday, December 18, 2012
President's Remarks – 2012 Maine Electoral College, December 17, 2012
My name is Craig Hickman. We meet today to make official the outcome of the popular vote in the general election held on Tuesday, November 6th, 2012.
We, the members of the 2012 Maine Electoral College, thank you Mr. Secretary, Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, and assembled guests for your attendance here today to bear witness as we conduct this momentous task.
I thank my fellow electors for permitting me the privilege and honor of presiding over this historic gathering. I am most humbled.
In the words of the James Baldwin, my favorite American author:
“One must say YES to life and embrace it wherever it is found, and it is found in terrible places…”
And so, I shall tell you a story.
And it came to pass in those days that Hitler died in his Berlin bunker. One week later, during the second week of May nineteen hundred and forty six, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe ended.
In the first weeks of August, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. On the fourteenth day of August, Japan announced its surrender—so long as it could keep its emperor—and World War II, a most devastating war in terms of material destruction, global scale, and lives lost, ended.
Hazelle Hickman returned from the Philippines, where he had been stationed since nineteen hundred and thirty nine, and found that the country he’d left behind wasn’t too kind to Negro servicemen returning from war.
Hazelle came back through California with a few good men who trained at Tuskegee with him in nineteen hundred and thirty nine. After hanging out in the Arizona desert, he returned to Tennessee, to the city of Beale Street and barbeque, basement slow dances and jazz, three years before Elvis moved in from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Still, Hazelle couldn’t find work. And so it was on the fifteenth day of January in nineteen hundred and forty six that he went up from Memphis, Tennessee, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on a Greyhound bus.
“Mighty nice day for a bus ride,” said Hazelle looking up at the driver from the curb. “What’s your name, sir?”
“Frankie,” the driver responded.
“My name is Hazelle, but you can call me Mister Charlie.” His tone was respectful with a hint of sarcasm. Hazelle tipped his hat to Frankie, flashed his gold tooth and moved to the back of the bus.
And so he went up on a Greyhound to the beer capital of America where his one-and-only brother Willie Lee said it was easier for a Negro man to find work.
Hazelle the second son was born by a midwife to Lee and Emma Ball Hickman in Inverness, Mississippi, on February fourteenth, nineteen hundred and twenty.
Yes, he had a brother, but Hazelle was jazz’s fraternal twin. He may not have been born in New Orleans, but Hazelle and jazz grew up together in the nineteen twenties, matured in the thirties, and took to the world in the forties. Hazelle claimed to have met Bessie Smith, heard Louis Armstrong play live, and auditioned for one of Billie Holiday’s back-up singers in Harlem—all before entering the service at the age of eighteen.
And so it was that Hazelle entered the Army Air Force and concerned himself with the taking off and landing of airplanes. During the Second World War, he fixed the planes the Tuskegee Airmen piloted and became a plotter. When he got to Milwaukee, Hazelle pursued his dream to work at a civilian airport.
Dressed up sharp, Army Air Force papers in hand, Hazelle took the long trolley ride from Sixth and Vine streets, where he lived with his brother, through the south side to General Mitchell Field, Milwaukee’s municipal airport.
He had called ahead for the interview and over the phone, the hiring manager thought that Hazelle’s military plotting experience made him a very good candidate for the job of air traffic controller.
“Hazelle Hickman here to see Mister Black about the plotter job.”
The eyes of the bifocaled receptionist with the fire-engine pompadour and pale, freckled skin scanned his tweed pants, his matching jacket, his rust and brown tie with the gold slanted stripes, his silver hair, and his colored skin and replied, “You can have a seat. He’ll be right with you.”
Hazelle did what he was told, as he had for at least the last six years. Outside the window, he could see the two-engine prop planes rising and landing, rising and landing. Even though an emergency crash landing he’d endured during the war rendered him unwilling and unable to ever get inside those winged steel vessels again, airplanes would always deserve his wonder with their miraculous ability to defy the maw of gravity and take flight.
More than a dozen planes had come and gone, come and gone while Hazelle waited patiently for Mister Black to be right with him. Finally, the pale-skinned woman emerged from behind a windowed door on the other side of the waiting area.
“I’m so sorry that you’ve waited so long and that no one was able to call you before you came all this way. I’m so sorry, really I am. I wish I was able to help you, but the position was filled just today.” Her face flushed red as her mountain of hair. “You know what? Maybe I can help,” she continued, raising the pitch of her voice as though she’d made a remarkable discovery. “Consider this your lucky day. If you check downstairs in personnel, I know for a fact that there are several openings for second- and third-shift janitors.”
“Thank you, ma’am. You tell Mister Black there that I sure hope God blesses him.” He tipped his hat as he walked out the door. “You have yourself a real nice afternoon, now, ya hear?”
And so Hazelle became an interior decorator, a waiter, a cook, a chef, a house painter, and even pondered a career as a nightclub singer and recording artist—oh, how that tenor voice could croon!—before he began his thirty-plus year tenure in office services at the Pabst Blue Ribbon Company.
But before he met Pabst, he met the woman with whom he’d spend the rest of his life.
“I met her almost as soon as I got to Milwaukee. It was forty six and I couldna been here for more than a month. I went to a USO dance at the Pfister Hotel. They had these events for veterans every so often. They were social gatherings where all the beautiful young ladies might come out and give us handsome gentlemen a bit of their time and attention. It was one of the few events back in the day where black and white folk could mingle. They even had a big band. Live. You better believe couples were cuttin a rug, jitterbuggin all over that dance floor.
“I hadn’t yet picked out any beauties to test my toe and get my heart a-jumpin. Then my buddy, Smitty, stopped in the middle of our conversation and raised his eyebrows. He motioned for me to turn and look at the little bit of heaven standin just behind me with a smile on her face bright as a Mississippi mornin. I walked right over to her.
“‘Well, hello sunshine,’ I kinda half sung in my best Nat King Cole impersonation. If a colored girl could blush, her face woulda glowed hot as the Arizona desert.
“I reached for her hand. ‘Before you try kissing it,’ she said, pulling her hand gently away from the path to my lips, ‘why don’t you take me on the dance floor and introduce yourself properly.’
“How can a man with a heartbeat resist that? They say it only happens in fairy tales. At the first sight of her, the very first sight, I knew it was love. So I guess you could say our fairy tale started on the dance floor that very night.”
“I don’t know what Hazelle is talking about. You’d be better off listening to a fool. Pay him no never mind, you hear what I say to you? He’s always talking and don’t know what he’s even talkin bout. I did not ask him to dance. I did no such thing, I say to you. No such thing. I was sitting with my girlfriends on this long wooden bench, and your father came over and said something to me, but I wasn’t studying him one bit.
“But he wouldn’t leave me alone. Yeah, he was handsome and all, dressed up nice and sharp—think he was wearing a navy-blue suit—but I wasn’t really trying to be bothered. I only went because my girlfriend, Mattie, asked me to go with her. You know, she didn’t want to be alone.
“But he persisted and persisted, I say to you, and he just wouldn’t give up. Finally, we danced.
“Yeah, your father’s a good dancer. Real good. He danced me right into marrying him.”
That was a glimpse of my parents who, in the late 1960s, adopted my sister and me into their home and raised us as their very own. When my father departed this world on March 14, 2007, one month to the day after he turned 87, my parents had been married for 61 years.
In 1998, they both attended my wedding. In his mellow voice, my father even sang “Ebb Tide”, my favorite love song, to bless our union. He told me not long after that someday he hoped his two sons might live in a place that recognized our marriage just as he recognized it.
Thanks to the good people of Maine, who have made history at the ballot box, his dream will come true.
Jop, thank you for loving me for the better part of 16 years and encouraging me to do all of this. You are the love of my life.
My father also hoped that someday his son would serve the public as an elected official.
Thanks to the good people of Winthrop and Readfield, his dream has come true.
Four years ago, when Elector Duson (Happy Birthday, young lady!) stood before this chamber and presided over the electoral vote to elect the first black President of the United States, I hoped that I would have a chance to do the same thing someday.
Thanks to the delegates to the Democratic State Convention, my fellow electors, and the good people of Maine, my dream has come true.
I wish my father, who took me to Harvard on a train, were here, though I’m certain he’s smiling down from heaven. I wish my mother, who turned 85 eleven days ago, were here, though I’m certain she’s offering up prayer from her nursing home in Milwaukee.
But a very special person is here. She’s sitting in the aisle a few rows up front my legislative desk, seat 122. Exactly 45 years and nine days ago, she pushed me into the world, named me Joseph Bernard White, and surrendered me for adoption. Eleven and a half years ago, at the age of 33, I showed up on her doorstep unannounced because I was determined to lay eyes on her. I just had to see her face. And so I did.
Today, she is here to see her firstborn and only son preside over the electoral vote to re-elect the first black President of the United States of America.
Surely a dream come true.
Mom, thank you for giving me life. For giving me to my parents. You are my birthmother—my first mother—and I will always love you.
Only in Maine. Where it doesn’t matter what you look like or who you love or how you walk or talk—it only matters what you do.
Only in Maine. The place where dreams come true.
I will close as I began with the rest of the James Baldwin quote, which, given the tragic events of last week, seems more timely now than ever:
“For nothing is fixed; forever and forever, it is not fixed. The earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fades, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us, and the light goes out.”
Thank you all for navigating the weather to witness this history.
Always treat one another with kindness.
Take care of your blessings.