Why Barack Obama’s election is personally significant to anyone who has encountered racism in this country.
It has been nearly two months since Barack Obama was elected to be the 44th president of the United States of America, and I am still overcome with emotions when I think of what this means to/for me personally. I grew up in poverty in a single-parent, welfare-dependent home in one of the most dangerous cities in America. Although I was always told that I could be anything I wanted to be, I never really believed it. But at 11:01 p.m. on Nov. 4, 2008, I could relate to the words that have been used to cast Michelle Obama as unpatriotic: For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country. And I finally believe that this is my country too.
One of the first people I spoke to after learning of Obama’s victory was my 22- year-old nephew, Deon. He and I have shared many milestones in our lives, and so it was no surprise to me when he broke my “no phone calls after 10 p.m.” rule to share his elation with me. We talked about a lot of things, including the time when he was 10 and a friend he invited to a sleepover in Minnesota cried when it came time for him to shower. The friend said he didn’t want to use my sister’s wash cloths or water because he was afraid he would turn Black and grow a tail. A tail? Seriously?
Deon is a military brat who has lived in many places, but he has only felt rejection here in his own country. In the middle of our conversation on election night, Deon asked me how long I thought it would be before the first assassination attempt would occur and whether or not I believed the backlash in the Black community would be limited to increased hazards of DWB (driving while Black). I was saddened by the realization that even in what was a great moment of joy, these questions are not his alone. I tried to get him to live in the moment and let the future take care of itself. Instead of worrying about the future, I, too, was haunted by the past.
Ten years ago I left home for the first time and moved to Wisconsin. I took a job where I was the only Black person employed there. Although I had some trepidation, I was not prepared for the hostility and terrorism I would encounter. I can’t say which event was the worst I experienced during my two years there. Maybe it was the time I came home to find my doormat replaced by a Confederate flag. Perhaps it was the time the K-Mart manager had to check me out because the cashiers all decided to go on break rather than serve me.
But I do know that the incident that finally made me leave involved one of my students. She was walking to class one day when a car drove up, and the occupants yelled, “Go back to Africa, n*****” and then used a spray gun to shoot her with paint. She ran to my office in tears, and I immediately called the police. But she refused to file a complaint, afraid of what would happen if she stirred things up on campus and in the community. The police and administration let the matter drop, and there was nothing I could do to convince anyone that such behavior should not be tolerated. On that day in 1999 at the ripe old age of 29, hope for me died. A few months later, I packed up my house and left Wisconsin, and I reminded myself what the ancestors must have often told themselves: This too shall pass.
I spent Election Day afternoon canvassing homes to ensure that everyone who wanted to vote had no excuse. While standing outside in the rain at a polling place at a school, I talked with other campaign workers about the diversity of the people working on the Obama campaign: a White “biker dude,” a Jewish grandmother and a single Black woman. Someone came running out of the school yelling that we had 15 minutes before the polls closed and said two people were at the wrong location. “Can someone drive them to their separate locations?” the person asked. The biker dude and I sprang into action and, as he ran to his car, he yelled to me, “See you at the inauguration, my sister.” I replied, “Wouldn’t miss it, my brother.”
I can’t describe what I felt when I heard NBC’s David Gregory call the election for Barack Obama. I thought about Deon’s little friend and the guys who sprayed paint on my student and wondered where they were. But above all, I thought about Barack Obama — a man born of a White mother and a Kenyan father who has chosen to identify with Black people. A man who carries the hopes and dreams of this people on his shoulders. A man who stayed true to himself when others advised him not to. A man who has given Black people a reason to believe that we really can be anything we want to be.
Dr. Teresa J. Williams is the associate dean for student and external affairs in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond.
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