We are family

My sister sent me a note on the morning after the election that said, “We ordered your birthday present last week, but we weren’t sure until last night whether it would come in the right size and color…!”  My birthday is November 5, the day after election day, and this was my best birthday pres(id)ent ever!

I repeated her line all week, and I think I saw a difference in response between black folk (and white folk who have black folks in their family) and white folk who do not have black members of their family.  When I tell this to people who have to pay attention to the fact of their skin color every day, they GUFFAW.  When I tell it to people who have the luxury of being oblivious to their skin color, the response ranges from not getting it at all, to muted, to (I think) uncomfortable.  I think that most of the white people I’ve said this to are too aware of their own personal inherited privilege (whether or not they use those words to themselves) to be comfortable paying attention to the source of that privilege, or conversely, the source of others’ discrimination.  And then there are us white, middle-aged, middle-class Americans, whose schools were integrated all along but whose environments and assumptions were not; we were raised more to try to see past racial and cultural differences than to celebrate them.

And it’s pretty clear to me that with Barack Obama, this is more or less what much of white America managed to do: to see past race.  I believe he was elected neither because he’s black nor elected in spite of the fact that he’s black; rather, he was elected AND he’s black.  He is a brilliant, eloquent, compassionate, man with integrity of ideals and values that showed through in his campaign.  His was the least-negative campaign I can ever remember for President.  He was the person who actually took off two days from campaigning to visit his dying grandmother.  This is the man who will dance with his wife his first dance at the “Neighborhood Inaugural Ball,” making a place for the citizens of Washington D.C. to celebrate.  This is the man who held a dinner the night before the inauguration, honoring his rival for presidency!! He was the person who over-ruled his advisors and addressed the role of race head-on in the oft-referenced “brilliant speech on race in Philadelphia” after he was attacked for belonging to Rev. Wright’s church.

But I don’t think it’s any coincidence that America has elected as its first African-American president a man who is biracial, raised through middle and high school by his white family.  White America recognizes one of their own, in a sense.

Of course, so does Black America.  Obama went to Chicago (one of my home towns), a city which elected Harold Washington mayor years ago. He’s known to the Chicago & Illinois black political machine, though he didn’t come up through the ranks (school board, alderman, etc).  He married into a black family.  But being raised largely outside the Black community, I imagine that he had to learn to belong.

Now, Barack Obama is African-American in the most literal sense of the phrase: one of his parents was born and raised in Africa, and the other in the United States. But in that sense, wouldn’t he more properly be called Kenyan-American?  Notwithstanding (Republican) Vice-Presidential-candidate gaffes, Africa is a continent, not a country; his father’s heritage is as specific as that of any Polish-American or Italian-American, who are rarely lumped together as European-American.

But the essence is that Barack Obama had a white parent and a black parent.  He lives in the Black community, but he also acknowledges that he’s more complex than that.  Do you remember when talking about what kind of dog the new First Family would get, that Obama referred to himself colloquially as a “mutt”?  I want someone to make “Mutt & Proud” t-shirts, for all the biracial kids out there who want their President to be a role model for them too.

But my sense is that in the Black community, “bi-racial” isn’t a tag that’s used; you have lighter or darker skin, but you’re black. Part of the legacy of slavery is that many slaves were biological children of white men, but slaves none-the-less. And think about “Showboat”– the legal definition  of being “Negro” was whether you had even a drop of “black blood” in your veins.  Jews were similarly defined by Hitler.

And precisely because he’s bi-racial, it’s really important, especially to black women, that Michelle Obama is recognizably black, that she’s not light-skinned and blue-eyed.  (Which she could be, and still be born to a black family and identify as part of the black community from birth.  See this great and surprising (to me) childrens’ book:  Shades of Black by Sandra L. Pinkney.)  There was an interview on NPR a couple of weeks ago with two women who have put together a book of letters to Michelle Obama from black women.  One of the themes that emerged, said the editors, was a feeling of “I’m glad she’s recognizably black, and dark like me.  Now I know I can bring my black babies into the world…”

It just seems like there’s a different sense of belonging.  I think that his election brought about subtle changes starting immediately.  And not just that my boys wanted (and got) “Barack Obama” haircuts.  What I notice is that there are more black people in television ads, and also more black men in both ads and as commentators on TV.  Black women, too.  Suddenly.  Noticeably.  Wonderfully.  And the folks in the ads are not “television perfect” people.  Nor are they white look-alikes who happen to have dark skin.  I notice this particularly in the young girls, with their cornrows or plaits.  If you don’t know what I mean, I’m afraid I don’t know how to explain it.

Now, my final thought on the day we celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 80th birthday, the day before tomorrow’s inauguration:

I’ve thought since I first heard Mr. Obama speak 4 years ago that having an immigrant father would give him a very different perspective on America than most Americans.  And that it would give him a different perspective from that of African-Americans whose families came up through slavery.  And it is SO CLEAR that his perspective cannot HELP but be different from that of his predecessor.

We have elected a President who cannot look out into the world and see only scary “Others.”

When he looks at Black Americans, he sees family.

When he looks at White Americans, he sees family.

When he looks at Indonesians and Pacific Islanders, he sees family.

When he looks at Muslims, he sees family.

When he looks at Arabs (his name is Arabic), he sees family.

This is a man I can’t imagine lumping the members of any race, culture, nationality or religion together and dismissing them all as “less important than me” or “scary.”

God bless Barack and Michelle Obama and their family, and may we be worthy of what he brings to us.