I’ve been hearing a few people complain that the media and McCain and Bush have focussed too much on the fact that Obama is black. I have to say, it remains to be seen whether the election of the man Obama is a great thing, but the election of a black man to the presidency is, I think, hugely inspiring.
The first candidate I ever supported based on an independent decision, was Shirley Chisolm, the black congresswoman who ran for president in 1972. I was nine, but I had made a lot of progress in my own head. Only a few years earlier I had asked my mother if the new and first black family moving in on our block was going to burn down the neighborhood because, at four years old, all I knew about black people was what I saw on the news during the Newark riots. She assured me “They’re just like us” and all subsequent encounters and friendships bore that out, so I took this to be conventional wisdom that every adult knew.
Though it wasn’t important to me in 1972 as a nine year-old to have a black female president per se, I did very much want to live in a country where people wouldn’t pay much attention to race and thought that if Shirley Chisolm could get elected, that “visible evidence” of progress would fuel much more progress. My nine-year old mind didn’t see how premature that wish was. This was the election where George Wallace, running on a blatantly racist and segregationist platform, took 42% of the vote in Florida’s Democratic primary.
So I think about Obama’s race a lot and see it as a watershed moment. I’m still registering it. In some weird way it’s like the visible evidence that maybe we’ve arrived, in this one respect, at the America I was hoping for when I was nine.
Still a long way to go, but a journey of thousand miles begins with a single step and this was one hell of a step.