Much of the United States of America continues to ride high on a wave of euphoria over the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American President. Even those citizens who did not vote for Obama recognize the significance of this event. “Historic” seems to understate this moment in time.
One of the events of the presidential campaign most vivid in my memory is of Michelle Obama, admitting at a gathering in Milwaukee, WI on 18 Feb 2008 that, “for the first time in [her] adult life, she was proud of her country.” Shortly thereafter, Michelle Obama was criticized in the press, among the pundits, and predictably by the opposing campaign, which presented a counterclaim of always having been proud of our country. Michelle Obama then retracted and clarified and contextualized her initial comment, I presume out of necessity because her husband was running a national campaign and was very careful not to alienate any in the electorate.
But I heard Michelle Obama, knew her initial statement to be true, and realized the power behind it. The vitriole with which she was attacked only demonstrated our country’s ill-preparedness even now to discuss race in real terms.
I believe some have always been proud of our country because their ancestors were among the Founding Fathers, and not the slaves that the Founding Fathers owned. The ancestors of some U.S. citizens were never forced to the back of a bus, never lived under threat of lynching, and never refused service at a restaurant. The forebears of some citizens have never experienced the wrong end of a lynch rope, shotgun, water hose, police dog, or taser because of the color of their skin.
A number of years ago, I was, frankly, incredulous at a colleague’s admission that, every July 4th, he pulled down a copy of the Declaration of Independence and read it aloud. I had never given that document so much regard in my life because I felt it did not apply to me. My African ancestors in America were not considered citizens of this country, and they were barely even considered human, but rather treated as a commodity. The so-called “inalienable rights”—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—were not afforded to them. Life was taken, liberty was considered optional, and the pursuit of happiness was subverted by a struggle to secure whatever was left over.
During the presidential primaries, I was admittedly a reluctant Obama supporter. I think my doubts were not so much in Obama as they were in the capacity of the American electorate to dig past the history, dig past the hate, and dig past what has been done, to do what’s never been done before. On July 4, 2009, I may just pull down a copy of the Declaration of Independence and read it aloud myself.
Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States of America is not just a milestone in history, and not just a stepping stone in our country’s evolution. God willing, Obama’s election will serve as the cornerstone to build a new America, an inclusive America like never before, whose founding documents are true for all people. That makes me proud of my country.