Racism and the social construct of race itself are much older than the United States, with deep roots European colonialism. But its beginnings in this continent can be traced back to August of 1619, when the first Africans in America — 20 or so, stolen from a Spanish ship — were traded for food by a ship’s captain, upon arrival at the Jamestown colony, in Virginia. Categorized as “indentured servants,” but without vital dates indicating the end of their bondage, some were almost certainly slaves. By 1640, as least one African was listed as a slave, and slavery was underway.
The space between here and there is covered by enough history books to fill entire libraries. Suffice it to say that the election of a person such as Barack Obama reflects much that has changed for the better since then. The spectacle of our first African-American president, though not a descendant of slaves himself, being sworn in on the Lincoln bible — held by his wife, who is a descendant of slaves — was a “pinch me” moment for many of us. Reality, on that day, took on a dreamlike quality.
As I watched the inauguration from home, sitting on the carpet in our family room, with our two sons, I look up at my bookshelf. There, pictures of my father and grandfather seemed be to looking down at the scene. I sensed a division in time was born at that moment. On one side was the America they’d known all their lives. On the other, my family and I — along with the everyone else — were carried along by history into an America forever changed by what was unfolding before our eyes.
The past 100 days in this new America revealed how much has changed. There have been a surprising number of moments, days, and even weeks — many of them consecutive — during which Obama was not “the black president” but just the president, whose policies don’t necessarily satisfy everyone, and irritate some, but whose missteps or debatable decisions are not attributed to on his race.
Not even three months have passed since President Obama’s historic inauguration, and already it tends to slip the nation’s collective mind that the first black president of the United States is, in fact, black. There may be hope for us after all.
In the cacophonous commentary about the president — he’s a breath of fresh air, he’s too liberal, he’s too moderate, he’s being far too generous to the banks, he’s some kind of closet socialist, he’s restoring the nation to greatness, he’s leading us to perdition — it’s striking how seldom race is mentioned as an issue or even an attribute. That’s only natural, since race could hardly be more irrelevant to the multitude of urgent problems Obama wrestles with every day. Watching him in action, as he shoves out the chief executive of General Motors or exchanges small talk with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, we witness a daily demonstration of the irrelevance of race. And that, potentially, is nothing short of transformative.
There’s evidence that the transformation continues. Despite criticism that he hasn’t engaged in or attempted to lead the “national discussion on race,” Barack Obama has altered the course of that discussion, altering the public perception of race relations — with nearly two thirds of Americans, and twice as many blacks saying race relations are good, according to a recent poll — simply by being the president. First Lady Michelle Obama has made an impression as well. Pegged as a potential “loose cannon,” race-baited, and stereotyped as an “angry black woman” during the campaign, Michelle Obama proved one of the campaign’s best assets and most popular surrogates. She now enjoys a higher approval rating (79%) than her husband (65%).
I get the sense that the Obamas know more will be conveyed by the way in which they carry out their new roles, than any amount of discussion. As Obama’s campaign could not be about race neither can his presidency. At some point, he decided he was running to be president, not”‘the black president.” What’s most significant is that, finally, a candidate such as Obama could run for president, and not just to be “the black president.”
Obama’s candidacy and electoral both raised the bar for African Americans, and placed it within reach. My six-year-old son was excited about Obama’s campaign from the moment I told him what it would mean if Obama won. The best I could do was to say that it would be the first time “someone who looks like you or like Daddy”” would be president. Fortunately, he didn’t ask why it would be first time or what took so long, sparing me the task of having to explain racism to my child. For now. But Obama has changed that conversation already, because I can say to my son “You could be the president, if you want be,” and point to Obama as an example.
For the record, Parker has no plans on a political career right now. He doesn’t like being in the spotlight and having all eyes on him. He says he doesn’t want to be president, because “the president has to give too many speeches in front of people.” But then he considers his 15-month-old little brother and says “Dylan could be the president!” And maybe he could, now. The ceiling on my son’s aspirations was raised on January 20th, as it was for many African-Americans.
Nothing will change for black Americans on Tuesday, when the first black president takes office. They will wake up in the same homes, go to work at the same jobs, face the same obstacles.
And yet, some Triangle residents say, everything will be different. Many say that Obama’s success has prompted them to re-examine what is possible in their own lives, or given them a nudge to pursue ambitious goals.
Many also say they have hopes that their children and grandchildren — whose history books will forever be changed — will see their horizons differently. They will never look at a black candidate for president and think that the color of his skin will assure loss.
Much changed for the better on day one of Obama’s “first 100 days” as president. It was a brief respite. For reality the day before and the day after was, and remains, an indicator of how far we are from “The Dream” so often referenced on that day.
In the journey from the America that was to the America that will be, 390 years minus 100 days, is a good start. But only just a start.