I, Too, Sing America: A Different Perspective on Obama

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.
–Langston Hughes

Like Jessie, I too have been overwhelmed by Obama’s victory.  I’ve been uplifted every day this week simply by thinking to myself, “We have a black president-elect” (image from here).

My background is very different from Jessie’s. I grew up in North Carolina in the 1980s, a beneficiary of the gains made during the Civil Rights movement. However, coming of age in the post-Civil Rights south was hardly idyllic. I never had to integrate any lunch counters, buses, or schools, but even without the structural machinations of legal segregation in place, racism was still manifest and evident. Whites still found a way to make it clear that while we could now use the same facilities and attend the same schools, in no way did they consider us equal. By the time I was eight I knew that the Klan still existed and was acutely aware of my (black) family’s relative vulnerability. Around age ten I remember noticing a pattern of whites getting better treatment than people of color in restaurants and stores. By thirteen, I had developed what C. Wright Mills would call a “sociological imagination” when it came to assessing issues of race and inequality. At fifteen, I discovered sociology and decided on the career path that would help me make sense of and name many of the things I’d seen growing up.

Being aware of these things so early on meant that by the time I reached adulthood, regular issues with racism and discrimination simply became par for the course. At age twenty four, when I went to view an apartment and the potential landlord visibly blanched when she saw me and grabbed her purse with one hand and her young daughter’s hand with the other, it didn’t faze me. I just decided not to bother calling her about an application. At twenty one , when my dad and I were driving through Virginia and he got pulled over for speeding, I didn’t stop to think about how sad it was that my immediate reaction was a paralyzing fear that the traffic stop could end with some cruel  humiliation or him being hurt. I just considered us both lucky that he was released with only a ticket.  When I was nineteen and my mom showed me the anonymous letter someone left in her mailbox that described the ways “people of color” (not the term they used) were all drug addicts and welfare mothers who were taking over a white country, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t have much of a reaction.

My point here is that if you grow up in this country as a black American, too often these things become part of the fabric of everyday life. They become so commonplace and regular that it’s not hard to become desensitized to them, which in a way, is the worst part of racism. You think to yourself, well, today, I’ll get dressed and meet friends for lunch, but I’ll need to allow extra time for the subway since cabdrivers won’t stop for me, and I’ll have to make sure I tip the waitress well to do my part to offset the stereotype that black people won’t tip, and so on…just another day. To borrow a phrase from Thomas Shapiro, these are some of the other hidden costs of being African American.

This is the context in which I followed Obama’s path in the primary and the general election. Black people know well that in this country we are routinely devalued, marginalized, and subordinated in a myriad of different ways. There are the overt and horrific (think James Byrd, Jr. of Jasper, Texas) and the subtle and easily-overlooked (see the ABC Prime Time Live segment “True Colors”). But part of being black in America means confronting and coping with the consistent message that you still aren’t equal, don’t belong, and often can’t expect to be treated with basic human dignity. This is why none of the black people with whom I spoke were completely confident Obama would win, despite the poll numbers, inconsistent McCain campaign, and tanking economy. We know what it means when race pushes you to the margins of society. When black people of all ages say emphatically, “I never thought I would live to see this day,” to me, that speaks to the recognition we all have of how regular experiences with racism take a toll on us, shaping our expectations and our lives.

When I saw “Barack Obama Elected President” flash across the bottom of my TV screen, it brought up all the feelings and thoughts I’ve been describing here. It made me fully aware of how often being black means coping with daily onslaughts, being excluded from the political process, and being forced into “outsider within” status. It made me aware of these things by contrast, because—like Michelle Obama–for the first time in my life, I felt included. The glass ceiling had been broken. For the first time ever in this country, someone who looked like me, who could relate to my experiences, would be occupying the nation’s highest office. When I saw other black people on TV sobbing or even just tearing up, I knew what they felt because it was in me too. We experience so much negativity, pain, and oppression in this country that sometimes we don’t even notice it. In this context, Obama’s win meant so much to all of us because it was a welcome shift from the exclusion and hostility that characterize much of our basic experience as black people in America.

I do not want this to be misread as a statement that if only black people believed in ourselves, we could defeat racism and accomplish any goals. This is not what I’m saying, and such a statement is shortsighted and profoundly factually inaccurate.  All of the racial issues (prison industrial complex, health care inequities, educational disparities, economic and wealth inequality, and more) that we write about on this blog are still happening and won’t disappear just because we have a black president. But I predict that the success of President-elect Barack Obama will have a long-lasting and meaningful effect for many, but for Black Americans in particular. It provides a bright spot in an otherwise often bleak sea of inequity. On November 4, we too sang America.

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.