Yet, we speak of an unsullied America, an America somehow free from sin, a past and perpetual shining city on the hill for all men and women. That is a lie. My parents’ lives prove it is a lie, as did theirs before them. And yes, as their offspring, I prove it is a lie. It is my duty as their offspring to remind America that it is a lie. I owe it to them and what they sacrificed to remind us all that the McCains and Bushes and Reagans continue the tradition of omitting the sons and daughters of African slaves. I owe it to my forebears to remember that this perfect, mythical country is one where my past is quashed—psychologically deleted… one in which I am deleted. In this mythical, exceptional land, I am the blight that must be forgotten. I am its version of the shunned Victorian madwoman prone to blurt the family’s filthy secrets, locked in an attic to keep them hidden. The secrets slowly poison everything beneath the capacious manor roof, but the residents suffer the rot and stench to maintain their precious image of upright sanctimony.
Barack Obama, the half-black son of a Kenyan and a Kansan—and unmistakably “black” man who has unwaveringly adopted Afro-American culture, has just been elected President of the United States. Some will say that this proves American racism is dead. Some, like the Reagans and the Bushes and their political brethren, have been saying that for decades, and it remains transparently ignorant and self-serving. Countless tales from this election alone prove the point (here, here, and here, for a small taste.) There is ample research to prove that we have neither outgrown our American cultural history nor our animal distrust of those who don’t look like us.
No, this election does not mean the end of American prejudice, bias, racialism or racism. Job applicants with black-sounding names will still be 50% less likely to get a given job than those with less distinctive tags. However, the election does have deep meaning, particularly to me, and I’ll be so bold as to suggest that I may speak for many other blacks as well. I am not trying to belittle the satisfaction that whites might feel at this sign of progress—their own progress. However, such satisfaction is only personal if one overcame a conscious distaste for blacks in order to push the “Obama” button. If not, the satisfaction is second-hand; it’s an easy kumbaya moment. It costs nothing emotionally. It demands that you neither acknowledge an altered reality about yourself, nor adjust any long-held belief.
I have often wondered what it meant to feel fully American. Today, I received my first glimpse. I have no illusions. I know that the country’s catastrophic state bears as much credit for the Obama victory as his rational, intelligent response to it, and his skillful, disciplined campaign. Nonetheless, it is heartening to think that issues can trump our ugly racial scars—that we can stop picking at the scabs long enough to consider our own self-interest above our historical prejudice. Considering from whence we’ve come, that is huge. Think of all the blood that has been shed to get here. Hundreds of thousands died on U.S. soil to preserve the right to keep me in literal chains—to own me like you’d own a dog. Sociologists Steward E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck identified
Untold numbers died from neglect, substandard, segregated medical care. Millions went uneducated and locked away from opportunity. Four little girls died when a white man bombed their church. Three civil rights workers, one black and two Jewish, were murdered because some white men hated us unto death. White assassins’ bullets murdered Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. This is a small sampling. Millions died in slave holds on the way to this country. The list goes on.
Some white Americans rail against such litanies. They call it living in the past, or insist that the past is insignificant. They can speak so foolishly because, in general, white Americans just don’t do the past. They don’t have to. And they don’t understand those who do. It’s at the root of many of our international failings. Many American memories don’t extend beyond their own lifetimes. We don’t understand that most of the world lives the past each and every day. Unlike the majority, black Americans live the past every day. We have no choice. We are its children. Southerners often live the past. War was fought in their backyards, and they lost. Americans have an uncanny ability to jettison the past with each generation. You can do that when you don’t have to look, every day, at scars it left behind.
The attacks of “un-American” didn’t stick to Obama the way they could have to another black candidate because his outlook is just as white as it is black. For most of this country’s history, the word “American” was preceded by the unspoken word “white.” Only whites received the benefits of this country’s freedoms. To be fully American—to reap America’s fruits—was to be white. It is this attitude that McCain’s Republicans tried to exploit. Not only was the zeitgeist not on their side, they had a candidate whose upbringing spared him a deep sense of exclusion. He didn’t defend his American bona fides with litanies of forebears who had fought in wars or who had labored in southern fields, thereby evoking memories that discomfit so many. He did not react defensively in learned fear of the less-than-American status of earlier black generations. He carelessly flicked off the opposition’s arrows. He didn’t have to remind America that he was part of what they want to forget. He did not have to defend his Americanism because he was not looking at this country exclusively through a black history or white historical point-of-view that excluded him from it.
I remember as a young child in school in the late 60s and 70s hearing how in America, anyone can grow up to be President, and knowing that it was a lie, knowing that if America had the balls to bet her glory on that statement, America would lose. If any American could grow up to be President, and I could not (men died in the streets to secure my right to merely vote) then I did not qualify as American.
Rivers of black blood have been spilled. My parents and theirs fought and died to rip their rights from the majority’s avaricious grasp. To justify their illegal hold, the majority belittled, dehumanized, brutalized and sometimes killed me and mine. So I have often wondered what it might mean to feel fully American. Today, I, a black descendant of African slaves, get a glimpse, and it feels good. I get a glimpse because the white part of a half-black man raised by whites who adopted black culture allowed him to see a different country from the one my history has burned into my mind. In America’s long, perverse history of race relations, such absurdist irony is fitting.