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.


  1. Joe

    I echo Danielle’s comment. A brave life you have led, and one can see how Obama thrills, inspires and uplifts you , as he has led a very brave life too…..Godspeed to both of you.

  2. mordy

    Ok, here’s my take. I will apologize in advance if not all of these thoughts cohere. Indeed this is a historic time. I am neither an academic nor a minority so I come at this from a different place than most of the regulars here. In short, aside from the day I was married, the election of Senator Obama was the happiest day of my life. I’ve been as acutely aware of the pain and stain of racism as I think anyone who walks in similar shoes to mine can be. Please understand that I don’t mean to imply that I can feel the searing pain or the numbing desensitization of racism that those who regularly experience it feel. I don’t and I never will. Our inexcusable and shameful 400 year history of racism has profoundly bothered me my whole life. However it wasn’t really until perhaps the last 20 years of it that I lived it with any degree of intentionality (to borrow one of Jessie’s phrase) to actively consider and understand what so many of our brothers and sisters have to put up with on a daily basis. I knew if Senator Obama could be elected that all of a sudden everything in the world would be profoundly different. I sat in stunned amazement and overwhelming joy when CNN flashed those magic words at 11PM. I cried along with those who I was watching. I sat in rapt attention as President-Elect Obama strode so purposefully to the dais and as he always does produces a speech that perfectly suits the occasion. I was too excited to sleep and began trying to make more sense out of what I just witnessed. I didn’t get too far that morning, but as a week now has passed, a few dispiriting thoughts have begun to crowd out some of the euphoria. For a week now I have watched America self-congratulate itself with an unrelenting back-slapping that would make you think that we have been collectively fighting for this day for a lifetime. Many of us were, but significantly more of us were not. This bothers me. It will bother me much less however if white people move with considered intentionality to attempt understand exactly what this means. By that I mean we should know precisely what obstacles were overcome, why they were there to begin with and how we can ensure that we never accept such hideous discrimination and racism again. I fear we will not.

    I received an email from a relative last weekend with a link to a website that showed headlines from the nation and world’s leading newspapers. The text of the email encouraged us to show these headlines to our children to commemorate this historic event. It began to crystallize in my mind that many white people might simply regard this as an amazing story, perhaps much the same way baseball fans might look at Tampa’s sudden ascendancy to the World Series. Without a painful and necessary dialog (which many white people are loathe or refuse to have) the magnitude of this moment will be lost. It was at this same time I first read Jessie’s post and then shortly after, Adia’s. Their writing and others like it should be mandatory reading to white school children. Sadly, non-white students will have their own stories. Such discussion would naturally encourage meaningful and necessary dialog that once and for all might help us all understand we are in this together and that more brings us together than keeps us apart. President-Elect Obama will provide inspiration and hope to children the world over, black and white. And this is a very real and absolutely profoundly important outcome. Trying not to be cynical, I still remain doubtful that it will do much to erase the persistent segregation that still exists in the twin pillars of our society- education and housing. Thus, in the short term it might only be through such open discussion that this historic election leaves anything meaningful in its wake (from a racial perspective). I pray that this is enough.


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