My father worked as an official in my hometown's city government for over twenty years. As a child I remember the day he brought home a brand new car, a shiny 1988 Cadillac Deville with all the trimmings---fresh leather seats and wood grain inside, gold detailing outside. It was the height of class and luxury. My whole family climbed gingerly inside, reveling in the soft seats and new car smell as we took a brief joyride around the block.
Back at home dad parked the Cady inside our garage and draped it with a drab brown car cover. And there, except for the occasional out-of-town trip, is exactly where it remained for most of my adolescence.
"Why can't we take the Cadillac?"- my brothers and I whined without fail every time we were forced to ride in our frumpy family van until finally dad was forced to give us an explanation.
"Because,"- he said, "It would draw too much attention."-
I later learned that my father, having recently been promoted to a higher ranking position, was worried about the jealous backlash he might receive from whites in our town if they discovered the size of the salary increase that came along with it. He was simply heeding a lesson in self-preservation that he had learned the hard way growing up in the South long before the civil rights movement helped to create a more equal playing field for blacks---a mandate to just do your job and keep your head down.
In a New York Times article Brent Staples addressed the issue of raced-based wealth envy in the Jim Crow South. "The term "uppity" was applied to affluent black people, who sometimes paid a horrific price for owning nicer homes, cars or more successful businesses than whites,"- he wrote.
But this lesson was completely lost on my brothers and me. For us those terrible days, thankfully, were long gone. We didn't grow up having to hide our accomplishments or our abilities. That's why I was so surprised to see the mixed reactions to the historic election of President-Elect Barack Obama.
Since the election I have read countless articles and online responses from individuals decrying the media emphasis that has been put on Barack Obama being the first African American president of the United States. Earl Ofari Hutchinson recently penned an article commenting that references to Obama's race are "overblown and obsessed"-. Others have questioned why the election is even being hailed as an accomplishment for blacks at all. After only one week, I've seen comments on virtually every political blog from people complaining that they're sick and tired of hearing Obama referred to in the media as the first "black"- president.
At first I was automatically deeply offended by these opinions. I wondered why, after over 200 years of African Americans being in slavery and subsequently being treated as sub-humans and non-citizens, anyone would have the nerve to suggest that we should not rejoice in this victory.
But then I tried to look at it from a historical perspective. I remembered my father's Cadillac and I realized that a change, no matter how just and timely, is still a change, and, for some, change always fosters fear and doubt.
Well, perhaps such responses are, in fact, fear-based. Maybe whites and other non-blacks are overwhelmed by the prospect of what they feel is a monumental shift in power. However, I don't see it that way at all. I feel that Obama, as he clearly iterated throughout his campaign and again in his acceptance speech, will be a president for all the people. This has always been his stated mission, purpose, and goal. If anything, he will most likely be the most inclusive leader the United States has ever had.
I have no idea how to allay such unfounded fears; only time will tell. But I can respond to the detractors and joy-killers: President-Elect Obama will be the first U.S. president who identifies himself as an African American and so black people have rightly and unabashedly seized upon his triumph as a symbol.
What this DOES NOT mean: That the racial divide in America has been suddenly eradicated.
What this DOES mean: That there will continue to be tons of t-shirts, books, poems, TV and radio shows, podcasts, and blogs hailing our new hero. We will gloat. We will preen. We will converge upon the Obamas like Elvis fans swarm to Graceland. That's just the way it is. And, to those of you who have a problem with it, I say just get over yourselves.
This victory was a very, very long, hard time in the making, and it deserves to be celebrated not just by African Americans, but by ALL Americans as a turning point in our nation's history. So, as Americans let us symbolically rip that dusty old cover off the Cadillac and let our collective black pride out of the bag.
Let us dance in the streets---together---and dare anyone to rain on our parade.