In honor of the re-election and today’s inauguration of President Obama, I’m re-posting something I wrote for a guest blog on the occasion of the 2008 election. The re-post is for two reasons: one is that I’m impressed with the fact that we’re talking about inaugurating the president, not about inaugurating the black president. See how far, how fast we can come? And secondly, because there was still too much racially tinged talk during the election. We’ve come a long way, and we’ve a long way to go. So, I re-post in honor of the first, and in hope regarding the second.
Is America Ready?
Depending on when you read this, the U.S. will either be on the way to electing, or would have recently elected, a new president. From where I sit, two days before the election, it looks very much as though we’re about to elect a black one. And one of the most frequent questions I hear from non-Americans is: is America ready?
The answer to this seems a no-brainer to me: we must be, or the black guy wouldn’t be in the lead, would he? I also find it a rather cheeky question, considering a recent poll done in the Netherlands, which found that the Dutch are fine with the idea of a female Prime Minister, less than fine with the idea of an ethnic PM, and absolutely not okay with the idea of a female, ethnic PM. Physician, heal thyself, I would advise. I mean, how soon do you think the Netherlands will be ready for a Surinamese PM?
Okay, I’ve had my rant, and offer now a less irritable answer: Yes. And gloryhalleluah, pass the turkey, it’s going to be a great Thanksgiving this year. The joy of this answer is as personal as it is patriotic, because America’s transformation has played itself out on both levels, as evidenced within my own family history.
I graduated high school in 1976, which means I spent my teenage years on California campuses convulsed by the race riots of the early 70’s. At home, it was okay to have black friends, so long as they didn’t date your daughters. My brother’s best friend in high school was black, but I was forbidden to spend time with one of my early friends when my mother learned his skin color. There’s a half-sister who was considered ‘dirty’ because the father of her first child was Latino. I later learned that, in some circles, dating a white woman was considered a legitimate way to ‘get back’ at Whitey. The message was clear at home and away: the only person lower on the societal totem pole than a black man was a woman who dated one. I never seemed to catch on, though, and at 18 I left home for good after a final stand-off with my father over the skin color of my college boyfriend. Forget the fact that he was gainfully employed, a homeowner, and mad about me…he was black, and my father would no sooner have him in his own house, than he would have him in the White House. Through the years, my color- and nationality-blindness when it came to my friends and lovers would become fodder for a great many familial ribbings. This from a family who could trace their own history from immigrants and ‘redskins’. To say we were confused would be an understatement. But to say we were unique, would be wildly inaccurate. Riots, family fights and impassioned discussions about race were playing themselves out in homes, on campuses, and in political circles across America in those years. And our struggle with the ‘race question’ continues to this day.
I tell you of my own family’s struggle with this issue to make two points: if he were alive today, my father wouldn’t care who I married so long as I was happy, and I am absolutely certain he would vote for Barack Obama on November 4th.
Why? Maybe precisely because of the struggle we – as a family and a nation – went through. By the end of his life, my father and I had reconciled over politics, my choice of careers, and yes… my Jewish boyfriend. He had watched daily doses of Court TV, and – like the jury – found O.J. “not guilty”. He had watched his half-blood grandchildren grow up around him. And he had fought the efforts of a white conservative President to cut his veteran’s benefits while spending time in V.A. hospitals the government refused to better fund. Being from a certain generation, he would never become color-blind, but he had learned to make his judgments from a different perspective. Perhaps, like me, he had grown up too.
I think Dad would’ve been initially attracted to John McCain. A wounded war veteran himself (he left parts of himself behind in Korea), he would’ve been attracted to the sense of honor and service McCain espouses. But my father also had a healthy bull-shit radar: the true stories behind McCain’s military and political career would’ve turned him off. As would the constant repetition of McCain’s ‘heroic’ tale: my father was from that generation of soldiers who didn’t toot their own horns much, and preferred not to constantly relive the war they’d served in. [update: you can probably substitute a Romney/business man paragraph for this McCain/war hero paragraph when looking back on the 2012 campaing-dd]
Yes, he would’ve been more than a wee bit uncomfortable with an Afro-American candidate – he might not have said so, but I would’ve heard it in the jokes he’d have made about Obama’s ears and basketball skills. Some habits die hard. But as a news junkie, he would have watched the reports, seen the campaign stops, heard the speeches. He would’ve been glued to the TV during the debates. He would’ve looked at his income level, the casualty numbers coming out of Iraq, and the state of his nation. [update: add the highest stock market in 5 years, growing job gains, and the most important – for him as a former construction worker – the improving housing market –dd] He would’ve heard all about it as he dozed in his easy chair (“just resting my eyes”), and Obama’s color-blind message would’ve seeped in. And perhaps, just perhaps, there would’ve been a little part of him that wanted to vote for Obama to make amends for his earlier behavior toward certain dark-skinned persons in both of our lives. I’m okay with that, too.
Because I’ve also learned a few things in the ensuing years. One of them is that some change comes slow. But it comes. While Dad’s initial reaction may have been so ingrained as to be automatic (he could never erase his own history), he’d had 30 years to get used to the idea of having Obama in the house. He may not have worn the t-shirt I would’ve bought him, but he would have kept it in the drawer with his other t-shirts, as though it belonged there. Or who knows? Maybe he would’ve pulled it out on Election Day after all.
The story of my father’s racial evolvement is not unique. In the years since I graduated high school, his personal transformation has been mirrored in households across the U.S., and reflected on the national stage. While I may have never – by some blessed miracle – inherited the racism gene, those who did have had these years to learn to overcome their automatic (some would say biological) reaction to ‘the other’. Maybe the Bush administration’s roundup of our Arabic neighbors finally went too far. Maybe they grew up with bi-racial grandchildren. Maybe it’s White Guilt. Who knows? And frankly, I don’t care why. I’m just happy that when Americans go to the polls on November 4th, most of them will be thinking more about what the next President will do as a national and world leader, than about whether they tan easily.
Yes, we’re ready. My question to you is: is the rest of the world ready for America to be ready for a black President?
Amsterdam, 2 November 2008
Dad…in his happy place. xd