1.4 million people came to my town today, to see history being made. They crowded on Metro, parked their tour buses, walked for miles, and stood for hours in the cold to see the realization of Dr. King’s dream — of many, many, many dreams — come true today. Sen. Barack Obama is now President Barack Obama. Elected for the content of his character, not judged on the color of his skin, today we step back and marvel, and wonder at just how far we’ve come in the last 60 years.
Perhaps I can only speak for myself here. I will.
I marvel. I grew up in the Deep South, just after desegregation, surrounded by private schools that all mysteriously popped up in the same year, the year that the Mississippi schools were truly integrated. I attended a neighborhood school, but half the students were bused in, from — literally — across the tracks, in neighborhoods not too far away but in some ways a different world. The neighborhood around the school was full of professionals, and no one there ever went hungry, or needed a new pair of shoes their mother couldn’t buy. Many of the kids who were bused in didn’t have those luxuries necessities, and we lined up each day, together, but in strata nonetheless — the kids who got free lunch lined up first, so the cafeteria ladies would know not to charge. These were the kids who arrived late to class, dragging after a long commute and a quick (free) breakfast in the cafeteria. There were differences, but we were kids, and we didn’t notice, most of the time.
I went to public schools in Jackson, Mississippi, my entire life, and it made an impact on me.
I grew up learning about the Civil Rights Movement, hearing history from social studies teachers who had marched, singing songs of protest and of strength, and learning about the delta blues from teachers who had grown up in segregated times and schools. My classmates and I were conscious of the recent history of our state — of our city! — but we were convinced those days had passed. We lived the dream of desegregation, of white children and black children (and the Tran boys) going to school together, walking hand in hand, and learning how to navigate the world together.
In eighth grade, I ran for Student Body President. I ran a tough campaign, seeing my first chance at real leadership, and campaigned as hard as I could, within the rules, even though I didn’t agree with them. You see, in those days, we had strict rules about who could win. If a white kid won president, a black kid would be vice president, and then anyone could be secretary. Two of my friends also ran, and we all rankled under the rules that we thought we were so far past. Would we really have to live with this antiquated, grown-up-enforced rule? We didn’t know the name for it yet, quota, or affirmative action, or even equality, but we rankled under it. We proved something on our little Election Day, though. The student body voted overwhelmingly for Chaka, and he became president. Without quotas. And the crowd went wild.
I’ve never been so happy to lose an election. (Although there were others I wish I’d lost — but that’s a story for another day.)
Chaka, Jim, and I served happily that year as student body officers, and our actions proved the old rule outdated.
Of course, that was just our introduction to race-based rules — we would soon learn that the class favorite designations for ninth-grade graduation came in pairs, with thinly linked names. The top-voted boy and girl would get the top designation (like “most beautiful”), and the top-voted boy and girl of opposite race(s) would get a secondary kudo (like “cutest”). I still don’t know who those rules were trying to protect, but they live on in my yearbook, awkwardly posed pictures of ninth graders in remarkably similar combinations of race and gender.
Today’s images of Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe and Jill Biden brought those pictures to mind again. Only, once again, their success is OUR success, and their performance is proving the old way of thinking outdated.
It feels like a new time in America, a time when anything is possible.
A time when we can finally leave our past behind, and look to the future.
Anything is possible.
Congratulations, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, and all the new leadership and staff. I can’t wait to see what happens next.