Joe's Road Trip 2011

Road Trip Day 3: Barbecue With a Book Group

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Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME

Renita Bankhead discusses President Obama's Presidency during a meeting with the Folktales' Black Women's Literary Society and Book Club at the George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, Texas on Sept. 13, 2011.

Austin, Texas

The Folktales’ Black Women’s Literary Society has been meeting and reading for 17 years. Time reader Peggy Terry invited me to join the group for some barbecue and talk at the George Washington Carver museum in East Austin last night. The barbecue was excellent–brisket and sausages provided by Danny’s, which is owned by club-member Carol Wright’s husband. The talk was fast, furious, funny and bracing. It quickly turned to the fall of the Roman empire.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories I heard as a kid about the Great Depression,” said Renita Bankhead, the budget director of the Texas Water Development Board. “People knew about sacrifice then. They expected it. We don’t. You know, there are always ups and downs, but we’ve had so many ups in our society that I don’t think we know how to deal with downs. That’s the big challenge for us now…On the other hand, empires aren’t forever. The British, the Romans…maybe it’s our turn at bat.”

Peggy Terry, who is a human resources executive, was skeptical about the ‘good ol’ days of sacrifice: “The good ol’ days were terrible.”

“But some things have changed and we can’t bring them back,” said Denita Nelson, the director of cultural programs at the Carver Museum. “We used to live in isolation. But we’re part of the world now–and we don’t have the same place in the world’s pecking order that we used to have, and we’re not going to.”

“All the economic progress we’re waiting for in America,” said Marjie Johnson, a former Navy JAG who is now a lawyer in the state Attorney General’s office. “It’s happening in India. I was just over there and you wouldn’t believe what’s going on in Hyderabad…But the thing I’m really upset about is the disrespect for the President you hear now,” she said, changing the subject. “I mean, I know people disrespected President Bush. I didn’t have much respect for him–although I’ve been reading his book and it has changed my mind about him. But I do think there’s an added intensity to the disrespect now and, yes, I do think think it has a racial quality to it.”

I asked Johnson what she thought of Obama’s performance and she said she was disappointed. “I’m frustrated. I thought he’d end the wars. He didn’t. He gives in too much to the Republicans.”

“When McCain lost, I said, ‘well thank God, I’m not gonna have to deal with that,” said Renita Bankhead–she and Margie Johnson were quickly becoming the dominant voices in the group. “I expected things would change overnight, and that was unfair. But he does seem a little like Jimmy Carter: he’s an intellectual and he’s dealing with ideologues, and trying to reason with them, and you can’t reason with ideologues. You need to push back, make them feel uncomfortable–and he just doesn’t like to make people uncomfortable.”

“He needs to get himself a pair of big boots,” said Bernadette Phifer, the curator of the Carver museum, “and kick a little.”

“But wait a minute,” said Marjie Johnson, “Aren’t we getting on him for doing the exact same thing that each of us as African-Americans do every day in our workplaces? Aren’t all of us very conscious of not making the people we work with feel uncomfortable.”

Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME

The floodgates opened at that point. Each of the seven women at the table had a story to tell. “I lost my temper at work once,” Renita Bankhead said, “and people didn’t talk to me for three days. I mean, I really identify with Obama. You have to act just so with white people, but then you also have to act a certain way with black people.” (I thought about how the President tends to get pretty churchy–by his own admission–with black audiences.)

“You cannot blow up,” Johnson said. “You can’t even raise an eyebrow.”

Is it that way with all white people, I asked. “I’m married to a Caucasian,” she replied.

“My three closest friends at work are white,” said Bankhead.

So there’s been progress, I said. There’s a black President. That’s made a difference, right? Bernadette Phifer said that it had made a big difference to her three nephews. “Now they really believe they can be President,” she said. “Now it’s up to them.”

“But it hasn’t made much of a difference if you’re unemployed or if you’re a small businessman like my husband trying to make it in a bad economy,” said Carol Wright. “We’ve got 30-40% unemployment rates for black men. And so, yes we’re proud that there’s a black man in the White House, but when is that going to trickle down?”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among black men was at 18% in August 2011. For white men, it was 7.7%. –KS

The talk moved back to the economy. “The problem is, we’re falling behind the rest of the world,” Marjie Johnson said. “You know, Rick Santorum had an interesting idea in that debate last night: zero taxes on corporations. We may need something like that to get things moving.”

“We just haven’t realized how the world has changed,” said Renita Bankhead. “We’re trying to cling to the past–our way is best, we’re superior, that kind of thinking while some of these other countries are racing past us economically. I’m worried about the level of anti-intellectualism among some of these social conservatives. If you’re smart, or well-read, they call you elitist. That’s the opposite of the attitude they should have….We have this sense of entitlement and the whole rest of the world is out there. It’s like we ate all the turkey and left them with the drumstick to split up among themselves. I know that the global economy makes the pie bigger, but there are an awful lot more people who want slices. I just don’t know how this country is going to get used to the fact that the comforts we believe we’re entitled to–we may not be entitled to them.”

A previous version of this post referred to the Texas Water Development Board as the Texas Water Commission.