Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Thank You, Mr. Prez

If you know me you'll probably know I'm full of emotion today. Good ones. The kind that make my eyes water and the world go all squiggly. I'd try to blame it on the head cold I have right now, but that's not it. It's the fact that we have a new president, one that I remain amazed and inspired by. It's all too big and too multifaceted to talk about in depth. So let me just relate a small thing...

I've been trying to figure out why my kids are so amazingly happy about our new president. My son, Sage, said something to the effect that he couldn't believe we elected a black president in his life time. He's 7. Some of it, of course, is him reflecting back my enthusiasm, but there's more to it than that. Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and realized another part of it.

When I was a kid in school I was always aware of the disconnect between the rhetoric of America and the reality. I heard that all men were created equal, and yet I knew from very early on that the words were true in a way our actualizing of them wasn't. All men were created equal, but not women. All men were created equal and had rights, oh but not black folks, not brown folks, not really. It was like there were two different dialogs going on the room. The teacher would say, "In America, anyone can grow up to be president". He'd smile and carry on talking, but each time it was like a separate, ghostly image detached itself, turned and spoke to me, saying, "Well, not you. Anyone, but not you. You understand that, right?" And then that ghost teacher would merge back with his/herself and carry on with the fine words, sure that they could be spoken with complete sincerity - and sure that a black kid like me really did understand that the words weren't entirely for me, not without clauses and footnotes and exceptions.

I felt that for all of my almost forty years, from what I experienced in life and from what I learned of the history of this nation. But I knew it as much as a child of 7 or 9 as I did as a father of children those ages. In many ways, it was a more savage knowledge then. It was part of the reason that my childhood was never as complete a childhood as one might hope for. There were never truly many days of innocence, because there was always that ghost-voice reminding me not to get my hopes up too high, not to confuse rhetoric with reality, not to forget that it really is a "white" house, after all. I'm sure that many, many people, whether because of race or gender or religion or sexual orientation or many other factors, live lives with their own versions of this disconnect...

Anyway, that was my childhood, my adulthood, and it's probably in my blood enough that I'll be surprised at Barack Obama's rise to the presidency over and over again for years to come. When I look at my kids this morning, though, it really does feel like they plucked a weight off and flicked it away on their fingers. Yes, of course they'd felt the weight too. I did. Why wouldn't they? But that was before today. Now, they live in a world were a mixed-race (African-American) person can be the most powerful person in the world. I think that changes everything for them. It changes how they see themselves. It changes how they see me...

Thank you for that, Mr. President. And good luck with the work to come. Lord knows I wouldn't actually want your job. It surely won't be a walk on the beach. Still, I'm glad you did, and glad you got it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

James Baldwin made much the same connection in his work, and I'm sorry to think how much that reality embittered him. But both your and my students, David, have reflected the astonishment and joy of what this election means both for us and for them.

Obama is an extraordinary person in any number of ways--I happen to think he will be an exceptional president--but the symbolism alone of his election would be worth the attention being paid to it. As I mentioned before, this is the first president I have ever been honored to vote for. I feel the same way after watching the inauguration.

Congratulations to all of us.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

"...[A] ghostly image detached itself, turned and spoke to me, saying, "Well, not you. Anyone, but not you. You understand that, right?"

Wow. That's really hard to read because it's so unfair that anyone has to feel that way (and obviously you and so many have). I can only hope that with President (YES I CAN FINALLY SAY THAT!!!) Obama, the ghosts of the past will soon finally be banished.

And did you see that crowd!? WOW! That was awesome! People are celebrating even as we speak. Congrats to all of us, indeed!

4:45 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Greg,

Yes. I hear you. I'm happy to say that I wasn't so much embittered as I was saddened. But I'm also so very pleased right now. This country is still capable of making big leaps forward. Here's hoping the next few years sees that furthered with many, many long delayed and necessary policies.

4:47 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


I don't want to overstate it, but that ghostly depiction does feel true to me. It's the way I'd imagine it if was making an animated film of it...

Life had been good to me in many ways, and I feel very fortunate. Still, though, that ghost has been part of things also...

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear David,
since I'm from Europe, I found it was at first hard to understand why Obama has become such a symbol of hope for many Americans. Of course I knew that his victory had a very symbolic meaning for the fight against racial discrimination, but I never really understood what it must feel for the people who are celebrating him right now.
What you wrote has made clear to me what his election means to all people who have ever felt discriminated - and it has touched me a lot.
I hope it becomes clear what I wanted to say (it is hard to find the right words). Thank you, David.

12:09 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Sarah,

Thanks so much for writing that. I'm glad to have added to your perspective on this. I do think this is only one small part of what Obama means, but it's the one that struck me to right about. Glad it meant something to you.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Corby Kennard said...

I hear you. I never thought I could be President either, but that's because I never felt capable.

I think that when they say "Anyone can be President", they should be saying "Anyone with these qualities is allowed to run for President". At least, that's how I always heard it in my head.

We've made great leaps forward. Here's to hoping we don't fall too far back before our next surge toward true enlightenment. Oh, and, your son sounds cool.

10:59 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Sage IS cool.

1:33 AM  

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