I thought a lot on Election Day about limitations, how we as Americans agreed both explicitly and implicitly, from the nation’s founding, that a black man would never become president. Masters certainly knew it. And from the wretched status to which they were consigned, the slaves no doubt could scarcely imagine it.
Yet, in a political campaign that began with most African Americans pooh-poohing the possibility that whites would vote for a black man and with large numbers of whites suddenly ready to do just that, Barack Obama tapped into the perfect historic moment of cross-racial yearning.
It has left me feeling bittersweet at what came before, for I have been forced to admit a truth to myself about racism and its limiting impact. I realized, quite sadly, that I had dutifully voted every four years for a parade of white male presidential candidates while scarcely lamenting the fact that this office remained the hardest, highest, most coveted barrier against the full and unfettered participation of non-whites in our political system.
Because I never believed that white voters would elevate a person of color to the presidency in my lifetime, I had in effect accepted the “whites-only” rule of the presidency. I’m embarrassed to say: What a triumph of racism!
So I think it is only fitting to “unpack” this idea of limitations, to dissect this thing that will, of course, still plague us but that now will lack its old power.
Let’s face it. Racial limitations have defined our psyches as Americans. For African Americans especially, we have always had to consider the limits of our personal and collective ambitions; to think about just how far we could and could not expect to excel in a nation where racism has been so historically present. Without such calculation, it would have been impossible just to survive.
The slave had to know the physical limits of the plantation and had to know how to circumscribe his behavior to avoid the lash. After slavery, we had to be damned certain to understand the limits of our so-called freedom, especially when Reconstruction turned to ethnic cleansing and Jim Crow was let loose on the land.
Later, in the modern era, we had to know when voting would be deadlythe ultimate limitation. And we had to know how hard to push, to fight, to secure our rights, to test the limits of America’s promise. We risked the blows that took too many lives, until, at last, we won full rights in the 1960s. We were protected by the Constitution. And we could votefor whomever we chose, black or white.
And yet, we always knew that the ultimate prize of our political system was off-limits. Not by law, not by decree, but by long-held custom. Shirley Chisholm ran. Jesse Jackson ran. But white America (and back then such a monolithic group was far more real than today) wasn’t having it. Racism was its limitation.
Before Barack Obama, everyone I know did not expect to see a president of color in our lifetime. We had grown accustomed to the racial limitations of these United States. We could attend college, get good jobs, send our kids to private schools, purchase large homes, write high literature, become sports superstars, Hollywood icons and CEOs. But president? Get real.
Obama has proved us wrong.
Perhaps he had not been jaded in the way that so many other African Americans have been because of our experience with limitations. Obama grew up differently. Yes, he knew of racist barriers, and, yes, he experienced racism in his life, we learn from his memoir, Dreams of My Father.
But although he embraces African-American identity and culture, he is a biracial person whose black Kenyan father was absent and who was raised by his white American mother and grandparents. He would not have absorbed the parental racial angst like so many of the rest of us, hearing our parents’ message, whether subtle or overt, about what white folks wouldn’t let us do.
And he is not a descendant of slavesat least not here in America, though one can’t discount the possibility that Obama’s Kenyan ancestors were raided perhaps by Arab or other slave traders who once pillaged that region of Africa. If such a history exists and Obama, who grew up with little contact with the Kenyan side of his family, is aware of it, he has not publicly discussed it.
Because of this different kind of background, he would not know that deep well of unspoken African-American pain passed down since slavery days, from generation to generation. Such cultural knowledge is both a strength, and, at times, a source of self-limitation that only compounds the corrosive effect of the limits imposed on us by white society.
And one of the most heartbreaking effects of self-limitation is its atrophying impact on young African Americans. Why try, if I’m only going to face racism? Why venture beyond my cultural comfort zone if they (the big white they) don’t want me there?
What Obama’s candidacy and victory prove is that they, too, have changed; they, too, have broken through some barriers. Like the elderly white man wearing the huge Obama button who recently approached me in the parking lot of the local grocery store. Tapping his big button, he asked: “You gonna vote for my guy?” I said, “For sure!” And as we chatted a bit about the campaign, he touched my arm and said: “You know, I was raised in Arkansas and everything was segregated. I am so proud to be able to vote for an African American.” I felt proud, too, to be able to experience such a moment. To witness a barrier falling, a limitation being let go.
My Election Day bitter sweetness has passed. I now marvel at all the cross-racial jubilation washing over the nation and the new dialogues about race and country that Obama’s victory has sparked. In an e-mail evoking the spirit of South Africa’s first democratic election, a friend in Johannesburg wrote, “Yesterday we woke up yet again (the last time being April, 1994, for me) to a new world filled with promise.”
Quietly, privately, through years of defensive bluster and agitation about race, I have longed for a time like thisa new American dawning. I am holding on tight to this precious, precious moment.