November 07, 2012

Congratulations (again), Mr. President

So many Americans are honored and proud to have reelected our beloved President, Barack Obama, for a second term.  After the past year of campaign duplicity and perfidy, so many of us feel vindicated and sane again.

Those of us who are African Americans feel something else too.  It is difficult to put into words (or few words anyway).  I have included a piece that I wrote in 2008 when we elected President Obama to his first term as the 44th President of the United States.  And now that he has been reelected, these feelings have only intensified. 

I remember where I was when the first African American became president.  Sitting in the middle of my bed around midnight on November 4, 2008, I watched, transfixed and silent as the final numbers came in, then brightly and boldly the words flashed PRESIDENT ELECT OBAMA.  As I sat there, unable to move, unable to speak, time seemed to slow and rewind and fast forward.  I started to recall my childhood, growing up as a little Black girl in America.
I was one of those peculiar, heady children who relished history as far back as I could remember.  I would read voraciously great American narratives like Little Women, The Catcher in the Rye, and Moby Dick.  As many children do, I would insert myself into the text, trying to imagine where and who I would have been during that historical period.  History, along with other great American novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, Native Son, and Invisible Man, told me exactly where I would have been.  The Constitution bound my people to a history that negated their humanity, so that they were either invisible in the literary imagination or they were confined to proscribed identities of servitude and inferiority.  If I had been one of the “little women” in Louisa May Alcott’s novel, I would have been a servant at best, nameless and faceless.  Undoubtedly, there would have been no place for a little black girl in J.D. Salinger’s 1951 Catcher in the Rye, as the 1950’s in America were characterized by the height of the turbulent Jim Crow segregation era.  And, although there were no women in Melville’s Moby Dick, history tells me that I would have been a slave in 1851 at the time of its drafting. 
As I sat there watching the words on the screen, PRESIDENT ELECT BARACK OBAMA, and my husband and I received a flood of phone calls from cheering family members and friends, I understood that I was not only witnessing a watershed event, I was apart of one.  No longer the little black girl, but now a black woman with her own black children, I was a part of history.  Now, my children would be able to see themselves in a way that I couldn’t.  They can insert themselves into every narrative with dignity.   Black parents, like all parents, have encouraged their children to take advantage of the American dream, telling them that they can do and be anything they want.  However, when a little black child says he wants to be president one day, black parents often think, if they don’t speak it, that their child has reached too high.  To this aspiration, the parent pats their son or daughter on the head and smiles that smile that says, “I don’t think America will ever be ready for a black president.” However, in this moment, my children and all black children were no longer bound by the chains of their ancestors.  The chains that had been loosened by the Emancipation Proclamation, and unlocked by the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Amendments, had gracefully and quietly slipped off.  My children would finally have full access to America’s promises – promises guaranteed by the Constitution and its Amendments but that have been, nevertheless, institutionally and systematically denied to African Americans – denied until this moment.
Now I watched as the elegant Senator from Illinois, now President Elect Barack Obama, stepped to the podium and began to speak.  As he invoked Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, my tears uncontrollably welled up and overflowed.  I had expected to cheer and jump around like some of my family members were doing.  Instead, I cried.  Yes, I cried for my ancestors who came to America on slave ships.  I cried for those ancestors still in bondage two-hundred years later who secretly taught each other to read by candlelight with the threat of sure death looming if they were ever caught.  I cried for African Americans who were lynched by the thousands throughout the early twentieth century.  I cried for African Americans who endured beatings, water hoses, and the wrath of white racism during the Civil Rights movement.  I cried because I was witnessing the dream and the hope of the slave taking his rightful place as the 44th president of the United States of America, a man with an African father and a white mother, husband to a black woman, and father to two black children.  A black man had galvanized a polarized and cynical country, transcended white racism, and inspired whites, Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks to believe that “Yes…We Can” move America into a new era, an era in which American meritocracy is possible for all Americans.  Those on the margins could now move to the center. 
As the tears continued to flow, now uncontrollably, I thought of the impact and import of this historical moment to the rest of the world.  African Americans would not be the only people whose lives would be transformed.  President Barack Obama will transform the world, not simply because he is a black man and the embodiment of the American story, rather because he has the ability to unite people and inspire them to change.  Already, Barack Obama has done what Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights movement couldn’t.  With his overwhelming presidential victory, popular as well as electoral, white Americans have joyously declared that they want to be led by a black man.  Barack Obama is the new face of America, representing diversity, intellectualism, and conciliation.  He represents the democracy and freedom that America has always promised to its citizens and marketed to the rest of the world.  And, I can say, “I remember where I was” because the unthinkable and unspeakable has happened in my lifetime.  I can now say, with conviction, “I Too Sing America”. 
I remember where I was in 2012 when Barack Obama was reelected to a second term as the President of the United States.  But this time, I cheered and laughed and sang and danced and cheered and laughed again.  America has spoken!