By DENENE MILLNER
He never talked about it much, my dad. But he’s a 70-something black man, born and raised in the seat of the confederacy—Virginia. He’s got stories. And last night, when I called Daddy all giddy, heart full with the joy of watching Barack Obama be named President-elect, my father brought home the import of an African-American man winning the highest office in the land.
“You’re too young to know what it was like, doll,” he said simply. “How humiliating it was to be hungry and want to spend your hard-earned money on a sandwich and be forced to go to the back door at the restaurant to collect it because you weren’t allowed in the front. How it felt to have to avoid looking a white man in the eye; if he talked to you, you had to hang your head—hang it like a dog. Step off the curb while he walked past you.
“I never thought I would see this day,” he said quietly. “A black man is president. A black man.”
And I could not stop my tears. Martin paid the price for our freedom with his life, but many more black folks invested in President-elect Obama’s new gig by bowing their heads and doing what they had to do to get by, all-the-while hoping and praying that their children would live in a better America—live to see this day when heads could be held high, without repercussion. With conviction. And a high step.
Still, as my father remembers the past, my husband and I look to the future—imagine what this iconic, indelible image of Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha standing on the steps of the White House means for our beautiful brown babies. Just the other day, before we had confirmed what we knew in our hearts was to be for the Obamas, Mari looked me in my eyes as I tucked her into bed and told me she thought maybe it would be cool to be president. “But maybe,” she added, “it would be just as cool to be the first black woman on the Supreme Court.”
“You can be either one of those, baby—whichever one you want,” I told her. And this time, I knew that those words, which I and many other parents of color like me say over and over again to our kids, were true.
Know that my 9-year-old truly can see this for herself because there’ll soon be two fresh, fly little brown girls in the White House who wear twists in their hair just like her…
And who like to play sports, and read books, and do well in school, just like her…
And who have a fresh, fly chocolate mom who is every bit as brilliant and ambitious a mother and wife in her home as she is an executive on the job, much like her mom…
And a father who believes in hard work, and love, and family, and is beautiful and thoughtful and stunningly intelligent and seems strong enough to move mountains—just like her dad.
In other words, my babies see for the first time in a presidential family a bit of themselves. The White House, built by the hands of slaves, will be the home of black folks. Two little brown girls will play out on the White House lawn, and suck on popsicles in the hot Washington, D.C. sun, and chase after their new puppy—twists flying behind them, giggles filling the air. And their parents will stand there, heads held high, sleeves rolled up, runnin’ thangs—working hard to make this place better for all of us.
This image, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson noted last night, “will do things to the gray matter inside our heads.” No truer words could ever be said. Perhaps the most poignant message to come from the Obama presidency will be that this black family isn’t so different from a lot of other families—that at their core, they want the same things most American families want, whether black or white, Asian or Latino, Gentile or Jew or Muslim, rich or poor, two-parent or single-parent, straight or gay. Indeed, the Obamas do the same things most American families do, and dream the same dream most American families dream. President-elect Obama (don’t you just love the way that sounds?!) reminded us of this in his acceptance speech last night:
This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.
No more bowed heads, Daddy.
Look to the steps of The White House.
This country belongs to us.
All of us.