Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What Obama's Presidency Means to African-Americans and to the World

In his classic work, "The Souls of Black Folks", W.E.B. DuBois says that the looming unasked question he refused to answer was, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ By giving voice to that question, DuBois expressed the internal frustration felt by many African-Americans for centuries. What to do with the sons and daughters of former slaves, now integrated only in the sense that the most overt practices and customs of previous generations are either illegal or constitute social or political bad form, has been the challenge in our country for nearly fifty years.

With the election of Barack Obama, our country’s first black president, there is a tremendous emotion, relief and hope that this country may now respond to DuBois’ frustration with the words – ‘a problem no more’.

During the campaign, when Michelle Obama said that she was finally ‘really proud’ of her country, reaction was swift and critical. How could she, an American, imply that it was only when her husband was taken seriously as a prospective candidate for the nation's highest office, that she was really proud? But just about every American of color knew what she meant: for the most part, an American of color was being considered – or not – on the merits of his arguments and in contrast to what was being offered by other candidates, not rejected outright, simply because he was black. And yes, that made all of us really proud.

The excitement generated by Obama’s campaign and the presidency, frightens some, because its magnitude is unprecedented. The nearly 2 million people who gathered in Washington D.C. and the numberless people who watched all over the world, is politically and culturally intimidating. But it represents a country celebrating significant hurdles overcome. Obama’s campaign became a movement of inclusion on the order that most of us have never thought we would see in our lifetimes. It is nothing less than the legitimate recognition of the story of oppressed people, by this country. It is a recognition which provides hope for people of color, three-fourths of the planet's population, all over the world.

The history of African-Americans has always seemed to run parallel to the history of our country. It is a story we had to teach ourselves, because it was told marginally and inaccurately to us by others. We had to teach the country our story because they didn’t know it. The names familiar to us: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and others, did not seem a part of the same history of a nation reverently remembered names like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams.

Even now, we have to remind our country of the parallels and ironies of this historic moment: the first African-American president, elected 45 years after the Civil Rights Act and 145 years after the Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation. Three hundred and ninety years, after the first African got off of the first ship to be sold to a white man and to work for him in chattel slavery, the son of an African and an American born white woman, has become president of this country.

It took protest, legislation, legal rulings and education. Black and white people lost their lives violently. But what America has overcome is celebrated not only by black people, but almost all Americans and by the world.

All Americans don’t celebrate this moment, however. It’s not fashionable to express racism and for others, honest doubt may feel unpatriotic. But we are now being called to a citizenship which demands more than fear based rejection or sideline criticisms. This is a citizenship at the heart of authentic democracy, a citizenship in which all of us are solutions to this country’s great problems.

And we’ve been called to that patriotism by the progeny of a people who were once considered a problem.

For that too, we are really, really proud.

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