What Obama Means to Me: A Personal Note

I don’t know about you, but I’m still periodically crying in celebration and relief at the news of an Obama presidency.    I feel as if something that I can’t yet name has broken loose, and I think it’s important to continue to mark this celebratory moment and talk very specifically about what it means and why it’s important.   I have a video clip of an election night montage, including part of Obama’s acceptance speech, saved to my iPhone and it makes me cry every time I watch it, and I’ve watched it every day since Tuesday.  I watched it riding the 6 train to Union Square yesterday and cried all over again, sitting there among all those strangers (image from here).   I have no intention of deleting it.   At some point, I’m sure the impact of this important symbolism will fade a bit, but it certainly hasn’t yet.

Part of why the election of Obama as president is meaningful for me is that it marks some significant distance traveled in my lifetime.   I was born in the same year as Barack Obama, 1961, but to parents who existed on the other side of a vast racial chasm from his parents.   Indeed, my parents in South Texas would have seen the union of Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. as evidence of all that was wrong with the world at that time.   And, the birth of Barack would have illicited – at best – some “tsk,tsk,tsk’s” from my parents about the “tragedy of a mulatto child” who would have to bear the mark of his parents’ thoughtless act of bringing him into the world.   I could easily imagine any of my grandparents, all four of whom were still alive in 1961 (and one of whom had been a KKK member in the 1920s), talking casually about the murder of an African man who had married a white woman, or their interrracial child, as part of what would set the world right again.  I can easily imagine my parents agreeing with them, if not initiating that conversation.   I can imagine these things because I heard similar conversations growing up about black leaders of the day; vile racist messages were the stuff of easy dinner conversation where I grew up.   And, on Tuesday I, along with millions of others, voted for Obama and danced in the street in Harlem in celebration.

So, what accounts for this distance traveled?  As I said, this is a personal note, so for me the distance traveled is about a “life-long struggle with the notion of white superiority” as one reviewer wrote about my work (Van Ausdale, Social Forces, September, 1998).  Those early dinner conversations about race were part of what spurred me to study race and racism in graduate school.   One of the most powerful experiences I had in the process of unlearning racism was working on Joe’s book (with Melvin Sykes), Living with Racism.  As part of work as a research assistant, I transcribed all the interviews in that book.  When I sat down to begin that work, I had moved away from the views of my parents and shared the views of most of my white liberal friends that racism was a bad thing but that it was an anomaly, and that charges of racism by blacks were either “exaggeration” or looking for grievance based on historically distant acts.  As I began listening to the recordings of middle-class black Americans talk about their daily experiences of racism, I initially objected to what I was hearing and wanted to take exception with the respondents in that study.   But the reality of the transcribing task is that you listen, carefully, and write down every word.  And, so I listened.  Carefully.  Noting each word.   Eventually, I learned to stop objecting and just listen.   After transcribing more than 200 hour-long interviews, I was a different person.   What I heard were people who were not “exaggerating” about racism, but rather often tried to minimize it.  The people in these interviews had learned really effective, often elaborate, coping skills for how to deal with something that was just a reality in their lives.   And, all of the people in the study were far more accomplished (in terms of education, occupation and income) than anyone in my family despite all the barriers that they had faced.   That experience of deep listening radicalized me.

In the preface to my first book (here), I wrote some about what my particular standpoint at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality has meant for my own work on white supremacy.  What I couldn’t know then is that writing that preface would cost me.   After I wrote that, I sent it to my father (my mother had died by then).    When my father read the preface, he reacted badly which is to vastly undrestate the case.  He tried to stop the publication of that book, tried to have me locked up, and we never spoke to me again.   (He died two years later in an industrial accident.) The fact is speaking out about racism, and in particular the lineage of racism in my family and connecting that to the larger story of white supremacy in American culture, was seen as a deep betrayal by my father.  I was supposed to uphold white supremacy, not call it out for the lie that it is.   It was about this same time that I also changed my name – from the one my father, and his father the Klan-member gave me – to one that reflected the anti-racist tradition I wanted to claim instead.  As my new namesake, I chose Jessie Daniel Ames, the white woman anti-lynching activist who founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.   For me, an Obama presidency represents an important symbolic shift in the legacy of white supremacy that has shaped my own life and has been the inheritance of this nation.

I don’t mean to exaggerate the racial progress that is represented by one black man being elected president.  As if “one black man could make it as a president, Katrina didn’t *really* happen just years ago,” as BFP cogently observed.  Yet, it still makes me cry tears of joy and relief, in part because it’s taken so very long.

Today, I write critically about race here and in academic publications, I teach in an institution that serves predominantly non-white, first-generation college students, I’m a member of a multiracial congregation, and there are beautiful biracial kids in my family.   None of this happened by accident, by being “color blind,” or as the result of some inevitable march toward “progress.”   The distance that I’ve traveled from being the daughter of ardent segregationists to being an anti-racist activist is one that is marked by intentionality.  I set out to learn about race and unlearn my own racism, and in the process, engage others in that process as well.   There’s a lot more work to be done on my own individual racism and on institutional racism, such as the school-to-prison pipeline that continues to operate unabated.

While some delusional commentators will mark this moment by declaring that racism never existed, others are offering much more nuanced examinations of what this election means, and how we might expand and continue the work of examining racism in an Obama-era.  The hope I have for an Obama presidency is that this is the beginning of widening that circle to include more people in thinking critically about race and taking action against racism, both individual and institutionalized.   For now, I’ll continue to get deep joy from knowing that after four hundred years we finally have a black president.