Today is an amazing day.
I’m sure I am not the first person to say that, and I won’t be the last.
Today is a special landmark in the political history of our country. Regardless of your political leaning, be you Liberal, Conservative, Republican, Democrat, Green, Independent….you would be hard pressed not to acknowledge that this is something wholly new in our country’s experience.
Hundreds of talking heads have been saying the same thing for months now, and with all the hyperbole about today’s inauguration, it can be hard to discern what the true meaning of this today is…and what it will be years from now in retrospect.
Since I can’t begin to say what it means to others… maybe I can try to say what it means to me.
Since election day just over 2 months ago, I have been reflecting how much has changed in our society during my lifetime. That seems like such an…”old person” thing to say, but when I stop and think about it, I see how true it is. When I look at a timeline of my life, the arc of change that has happened has been remarkable.
When my parents married in 1962, interracial marriage was illegal in 18 of the United States.
My Mom had taken part in freedom rides into Maryland to help desegregate lunch counters. In 1963, when I was 6 months old she and friends took part in the famous March on Washington.
In 1969, the year after Martin Luther King was assassinated, my Dad returned to visit to his hometown in rural Georgia for the first time in 20 years. On the main North South freeway on his drive down, just as he passed over the border into North Carolina, he passed this billboard:
40 years ago this spring.
I don’t know if there is any clearer indication of how far we have come, than the fact that the same state of North Carolina that greeted visitors from the North with this sign in 1969, voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
Later that year, when my Mom and I flew down to Georgia to meet my Dad’s relatives, my Mom gave me one of the sternest lectures of my life: She explained to me that we were going to a place where some people did not like other people because of the color of their skin, and to it was very important that we (meaning me) were well behaved and that I had to mind her if she asked me to do anything. To this day I remember the tone in her voice…I had never heard her be that serious before. It frightened me. “Yes Mom” was all I could say. And I did behave.
I grew up as a mixed race child who embraced all of the cultures from my family. I spent my summers in both rural Georgia with my Dad’s family, in Norway with my Mom’s and in Crown heights, one of the largest black communities outside of the continent of Africa. My family taught me the same lessons that Dr. King preached…it’s WHO you are that is important, not what you look like. The content of your character.
So, on this past election night, when I watched as they announced Barack Obama as the projected winner, tears came to my eyes. I was looking at my 12 year old daughter Isabel, and realized that there was NO way she could fathom how momentous this moment was. Yes, Isabel knew that our family supported Obama. Her 16 year old sister Sofia had worked hard for two months interning for the local Obama headquarters. But she has grown up in a place and time where overt racism has not been an integral part of her life. It has never occurred to her to refer to her friends at school as her Black friends or her White friends (or Hispanic or Asian for that matter). She goes to school with kids of all different hues, all different ethnicities…. And they are just…her friends. The kind of racism that was reported about on the front pages of almost every newspaper when I was young, is absent from her life.
That is not to say that racism doesn’t exist…but with the events of last November and today, it feels as if it’s grip on our society has been loosened to a great degree.
Later on Isabel will understand….and hopefully, she will do so from having to study it as a relic of a society and a time gone past…not from current events.
Yes, we have come a LONG way in my lifetime…and my prayer is that we will progress further still before I am gone.
So, what does today mean to me?
It means that I will be calling my Mom and saying “Thank You”.
Because what Today really is, is a testament to what she and others did when they picketed and marched and shouted and sang and stood up, when picketing and marching and shouting and singing and standing up were dangerous things to do. And some of them were hurt, and some of them died…to help make a better future for everyone.
So, to me, ultimately today is a day of thanks. Thanks to those who went before. And hope that we are creating a NOW that is worthy of the sacrifices they made then.
“Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place,”
-South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, said in a letter of congratulations to Obama.