Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack Hussein Obama.

I wanted only to write the most positive words today, because my heart is brimming over with the most incredible joy. Behind this joy is a collection of memories less joyful. Yet it is these experiences that make my joy and pride that much greater. It is this collection of memories and experiences that help me recognize the transformative moment in history that is this particular inauguration, and how often do we consciously bear witness to such moments?

When I was home in Baton Rouge, a friend commented to my husband that she is just so tired of “it being about him being black,” because there are so many other reasons to be excited about Obama being president.

Of course it is about him being black above all the reasons to be excited about Obama.

When I was home someone else commented, “It’s black owned, but I can find everything I need over at old So-and-So’s store.” Yes, it’s about him being black.

In fourth grade my dad didn’t want me to play with a little girl who lived in our townhouse complex, a Jamaican girl – not because she was a bad child, but because the color of her skin caused him to assume all the dirtiness in the world about her character. To assume it and fear it. I remember, even at that young age, telling him outright he wasn’t being fair. As sharp as my tongue can be, it wouldn’t surprise me if I called him racist. Of course it’s about him being black.

Growing up, I heard more people say the word “nigger” than I can begin to count.

During yet another moment from my last visit home, a friend talked about her hair dresser flinging that very word around. She also spoke of another friend telling her something to the effect of, "You know my family; you know I could never vote for Obama." How can it not be about him being black?

I heard a man joke a few years ago to a woman about some action she’d taken or something she’d just said, that she’d better “watch it, or your nose might start to get wider.” Isn’t it about him being black?

In childhood and adulthood, I have listened to a lot of particularly ugly words spoken about race.

I did not grow up in the sticks. I grew up in the same gigantic south as a lot of people. Somehow, I have always had tremendous clarity that racism is based on fear. I share a birthday with Martin Luther King, Jr., so maybe I’ve been hyper sensitive from as early as I could understand. But I have understood for a very long time.

Maybe it's my own repressed memories that help me understand - my mom telling me how when we moved to Delaware, I cried to her about kids teasing me because I was so dark (I'd spent a summer at a swimming pool turning browner and browner and browner). I don't remember those tears at all. I do remember my dad saying I needed to spend less time in the sun. Imagine! A child should spend less time in the sun?

The first time I visited Colorado I felt astounded about all of the white flesh (and lack of brown) surrounding me. I admit that it has taken me time to adjust to living in a city where I rarely see or interact with African Americans.

I have also felt protective of what it is to be Southern in the face of northern, intellectual liberals who come from places where there are no black people – peers who have little experience of interaction between races, who, in principle are not racist or prejudiced, and who in reality, haven't the slightest idea (beyond internal preconceived notions) what it is like to gracefully and fairly negotiate cultural differences, perceptions and the weight of history against the realities of the present.

I know it is complicated, difficult – or at least systemic and so challenging to dismantle – the way that racism and the circumstances of racism in this country have evolved. But there is nothing complicated about hatred, about presuming human qualities based on skin color. Of course it is about Barack Obama being our first president of color. A man, who, in spite of his color, has been elected president by a still bigoted country. Of course it is about him being black – for all of us, regardless of our color.

His election gives me all the hope in the world that my children will be less bigoted than I am, as I am far less bigoted than my own father, and I feel grateful for such hope.

Here we are, January 20, 2009. My sister’s birthday. My nephew’s birthday. What would have been MLK’s 80th birthday. To recognize that we are in a transformative moment, we must be willing to recognize the truths of the past – not for the sake of blame, but for the sake of absorbing all the joy and importance and weight of this moment. Here we are alive and, if we choose to be, aware enough to recognize a transformative moment in our very own history.

I wish I had more eloquent words. But frankly, what I have is the challenge of communicating my heart.

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