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Chapter 5 96 Maxwell, whom we last left in chapter 4 sorting through the filing cabinets of his research articles and medical memory, reflects on why is it just us living and dying with HIV/AIDS twenty-five years into the epidemic. His story, passionate and pained, takes us back to memories of his childhood, to life as it was. Maxwell chuckles as he recalls the hot dogs and hamburgers he enjoyed on our side of the separating wall in his favorite restaurant, savoring, if for a fleeting moment, perhaps the most symbolic experience of an all-American childhood, the hamburger. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944, Maxwell was the oldest of six in a college-educated, traditional family trying to survive segregation in the precivilized era. Growing up, his life centered around education , the church, and the tight role of family and community in providing fierce protection and safety amid segregation. Poring over the biology and history books in his father’s library, Maxwell absorbed his parents’ love of learning from an early age. His well-to-do grandparents were successful in business, but perhaps the biggest success of this family was that they allowed Maxwell to experience those moments of childhood joy and freedom, despite the oppression and constant threat of segregation that surrounded them. The separating wall is no mere memory; to this day, its traces continue to shape the ways Maxwell knows and speaks of the world around him. Life As It Was Life for Maxwell was circumscribed by racism, by the injustice that surrounded his tender, too-young awareness of a very suppressive society. And yet his recollections are nonetheless filled with vivid descriptions of daily life The President, the Preacher, and Race and Racism in the Obama Era The President, the Preacher, and Race and Racism 97 as a child, moments created by his “overprotective” family and community. His is a seemingly contradictory story that interweaves stories of childhood cowboy games played with his favorite cousins on the porch or over by the railroad tracks with descriptions of his early childhood awareness not to look at any white woman—it was extreme caution, especially with the Caucasian woman, because during that era any look the wrong way and there was some type of mutilation. Trying to bring it all together, he says, “It was just life as it was. I mean, there was no perception of what it was supposed to have been. That was life yesterday in today’s diverse society.” A man who is reluctant to speak against whites, or indeed to utter the word racism, Maxwell nonetheless describes the lasting influence of his high school graduation speaker. This speech was uttered amid an institution—one of two all-black high schools in Birmingham—that supported and reflected the way that it was in one of three states that still maintained segregated school systems eight years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education’s landmark desegregation ruling.1 The speaker, a Black minister, launched this group of Black high school seniors into the world with a speech about the scarecrows in the world: “This was a code word for, you know, segregation.” Maxwell pauses, continuing: “And his whole thing was not being scared of the scarecrows and to move forward in life although there were scarecrows all around us. And he was never invited to speak again.” Maxwell laughs fervently, giving note to the tension he feels still to this day of a graduation speech uttered despite the presence of white administrators in the room, a speech that was never supposed to have been given. This minister speaks in code to name the social reality of racism and to encourage the further survival of those young men and women before him, many of whom would leave their high school success to stand on the front lines of the civil rights movement building around them. The speaker may not have been invited back, but his work was already done—he had powerfully rendered a vision of both injustice and survival through coded imagery and language that speaks to this day. Maxwell became increasingly aware of the growing civil rights movement on his doorstep when he went to Tuskegee University, “a freedom mountain sitting there in the middle of Alabama,” as he refers to his alma mater. While studying to get his degree in veterinary medicine, Maxwell fervently participated in the civil rights revolution taking place around him, marching from...


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MARC Record
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