Friday, August 29, 2008

the hopeful

I did watch Senator Obama's speech last night. Before I parked myself in front of the couch, I was thinking about how I might want to write a letter to my children about it. One of these days, I imagine that they'll come home from school and ask me about it.

"Mommy, what was it like? What did it mean to you?"

I used to ask this question of my parents when I was a child. My mom grew up in the same town I grew up in, before the fall of the industrial economy, white flight, and the crack epidemic ravaged the place. My dad grew up in the South before it became the New South and attended segregated schools. During their childhood, so many things happened. They were toddlers when Topeka was ordered to desegregate its schools and when Birmingham was told to desegregate their buses, but there was so much more to the Movement. I was fascinated with the twenty-five years that predated my existence in which America wobbled while turning right-side up. I read everything I could get my hands on, from the Freedom Riders to the Panthers. From Muhammad Ali to John Carlos and Tommie Smith. From Malcolm X to Thurgood Marshall. I was engrossed in Eyes on the Prize, Roots, and every other made-for-TV biography of a black hero. I excelled in school during Black History Month each year. I always wondered what it was like when history was the news. But at the time, parents were too busy being children to really reflect on the magnitude of what was being witnessed or how profoundly it would affect my life. Also, memories fade with time.

So I figured that I'd try to get my feelings and observations down while they're still fresh. I did watch Barack Obama's speech when he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for President. I knew it was a first, and I knew that's all anyone would be talking about for months to come. Obama's candidacy has engaged so many black people in the political process. You can turn on the television, turn on the radio, go on the internet - black people are talking about this candidacy everywhere, whether or not they are planning to vote for him, though most of us are planning to vote for him in the general election. One of the most fascinating things about his candidacy is that it isn't just about electing a black man for many people, myself included. He is smart, he is personable, he has some good ideas (depending on who you ask), and he has demonstrated the ability to look and sound and act presidential. He speaks to the optimism in people and he challenges people to question their cynicism and believe in their own ability to make their country and their world a better place.

He has supporters from many different ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds and political beliefs. People flock to see him speak in record audiences. They call him a rockstar. Others say he's too popular. One thing is for sure - no American has seen anything like this ever before in politics. Whether people like him or dislike him, most do it passionately. When he speaks, people listen. Many are fascinated because other black people have run for President, like Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton but no other black candidate made it out of the primary elections before. No other black candidate had a shot at actually becoming President before. Whether or not he wins in November, he will still have opened a door that most Americans thought was closed to black people. He isn't just black. He is also white. He has been embraced by many blacks and many whites, and many others who are biracial as well.

On the night that he became the presumptive nominee - when it was determined that he had swayed more Democratic convention delegated than his only remaining rival for the nomination - he gave a speech, and I watched as he and his wife stood before the whole country. I did cry. I was happy for my country - happy to see that this was possible in America.

And last night when he gave his speech, I didn't cry. I already had almost three months to get used to the idea that a black person could become a major political party's nominee for President. I felt the weight of the moment, but by the time his speech came, I was actually less impressed with the race of the candidate than I was concerned about how strong a candidate he was or wasn't. As he came out to talk to the 75,000 people who came to listen to his speech in a gigantic stadium, my first thought was, "I hope he doesn't mess anything up," because I wanted everything to go perfectly. My second thought was, "I hope the Secret Service [the people who are responsible for his safety] doesn't mess anything up." I thought about President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were assassinated when my parents were young. I thought about how the elders - my grandmother and others - were probably thinking the same thing.

And then he began to speak.

He spoke about his predecessors in his party - he thanked everyone, including his family, his running mate, his opponents. He talked about civic responsibility and his plans for the country. He criticized his opponent. He challenged everyone to make a better country. It was patriotic, it was substantive, and it was something I was proud of. I thought about how the family he made with his wife is like the family I come from and like the family I want to make one day. I thought about how the rest of the world can see a family like mine in public view - that good black families exist and are happy and normal, like many other American families from every ethnicity, religion, class, and political leaning. I knew that he had done a good job and shown why he had the chance to be our president. And because I agreed with the things he said, I hoped that one day he would be our president.

He gave the speech forty-five years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s legendary I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington, which happened before I was born, when my parents were in junior high school. And although he talked about the speech, it was only indirectly, and I loved that he didn't try to abuse Dr. King's legacy in that way. It would have been seen as presumptuous of him to declare that his candidacy was the ultimate fulfillment of Dr. King's dream. But he talked about it just enough to let people know that he was aware of the weight of the moment, and that his hopes are similar to the great pastor's.

I think that most of us who know our history in this country have been humbled by the idea that we are living through history. I don't know one person who isn't paying attention as this candidacy goes on. We all want to know - will he win? Can he win? Is America ready to vote for him? The ghosts of our history still haunt us and we watch and wonder. So many of us hope very cautiously. My grandma, who was born during the Great Depression, lived through a World War, and raised children in the segregated south, likes him. But she fears for his safety, wondering if his life will be taken. My parents think it can happen, but don't trust other Americans to get past prejudices and vote for him. And me? Well I don't know. I think I'm a little less pessimistic than my grandma and my parents... but not by much.

But I don't see this as a test of whether or not America has gotten over racism. It's a political contest, and there just might be enough people who disagree with him politically for him to lose the election. If he doesn't win, it might not be race that caused it. It might be, but it might not be. That's how racism works today. It's not in-your-face like it was when my parents were children. It's very quiet and sometimes when it happens, because you want to believe the best about people, you're not sure if the thing that made you wonder about racism is really racist or just something else... like political disagreement. Only the progression of time will tell us what we want to know about Senator Obama's future - America's future.

Only time will tell if my children will ever want to hear this story on a former President or a former presidential hopeful.