That comes from James Baldwin, the novelist and essayist. He was cited in an essay by Colm Tóibín in the New York Review of Books a couple of weeks ago. Baldwin was recalling, in an essay published in 1965, a speech by Robert Kennedy. The former Attorney General said, in Baldwin’s telling:

“… it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President. That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted…. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.

It takes your breath away sometimes to consider the present set against the backdrop of the past.

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