My father had very little use for history. He seldom reminisced but would be happy to talk about his past if you asked him. He wasn’t one of those guys who attended the Veterans Of Foreign Wars and had no need for them. Seriously, to be the veteran of a domestic war you’d have to be over one hundred and sixty years old. When I was a boy, he kept his Army dress uniform in my closet and I used to open the door and stare at the green jacket and with the mind of ten-year old think of the places it’d been over the last forty years. One day I came home and it was gone. My father needed closet space. He didn’t need a forty year old jacket. He threw it out. When I think about it, I probably only have about a dozen stories about my father from before I was born. I’ve never met any of his friends. The oldest picture I ever saw of him was when he enlisted for World War II when he was seventeen. My father was a man who lived in the present.
Pay attention here because you’ll never hear me say this: In this respect, I hope I am never like my father.
When you think of the historical events you’ve witnessed you can always remember where you were. In 1986 was in eighth grade and there was a hush among teachers and finally someone told us the space
shuttle had exploded. In 2001 I was driving down 17th Street about to cross Pine on my way to work when Gary Dell’Abate interrupted Howard Stern to tell him the World Trade Center was on fire and a moment later, that it’d been hit by a commercial plane.
The thing about history is you never know when it’ll happen. It just does and you bear witness.
Except now. Someone has given me a place, date and time and essentially said if you are there, you’ll be a part of history. People like to toss around the phrase "once in a lifetime" but on January 20, 2009, it applies.
My father lived in Washington DC during the Martin Luther King March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He didn’t attend the march. I am not sure why but I’ll bet crowds had something to do with it and being able to watch it better on television (which was his same argument for sporting events). Had my father, who died in 1999 three weeks before the millennium, been alive today he’d be eighty-three and probably think I was insane for going to what’s expected to be the largest crowd to attend an inauguration in history.
For me, being black in America always felt illegitimate. Our accomplishments ignored. Our tribulations belittled. Our history being compressed into one month of slavery, a bus boycott and MLK. Political Correctness caused people to say things without understanding what they meant which, while polite, is meaningless.
When I was ten I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. My father talked me out of this because black people don’t get to be film directors. I told this story to my friend Kendra and there was such sorrow in her voice like someone broken her heart and puzzled, I didn’t know why it brought that reaction.
"That’s the most depressing thing I think I have heard a parent doing out of love," she said.
I responded, "What are you talking about? My father didn’t want to see me hurt."
She looked at me like she knew something I didn’t and said, "You believed your father and you trusted him and crushed your dream. How many people decide what they want to be at ten and still want to be that twenty-five years later? Has your father ever met you?"
I never saw it like that. I always thought of it as my father not wanting me to be disappointed. He was protecting me. In reality what he was doing was exercising what he had learned in his life. There were places black people were welcomed and places where they weren’t. He used to tell me, "It doesn’t matter how many black people are on the football field, the real power is how many are in the office."
Years later I had a heated discussion with my friend Jessica on if her daughter decided said she wanted to be the President of the United States what her answer would be. Jessica would encourage her and tell her anything was possible. I would tell my child it was unlikely it would happen. Jessica was appalled at my attitude. I think one of the differences between the way white and black people view America is to white people, anything is possible, it just hasn’t happened yet. To black people, there are things that just won’t happen.
Watching the election results the common phrase heard was, "I never thought I would see this in my lifetime." I never saw person say that. It wasn’t that they didn’t think it, it just wasn’t on the forefront of they’re mind to say it. How sad is it that I have said that about the same thing several times in the past few years. I lost a bet I made a year ago that neither Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would get the Democratic Nomination because I viewed it as party suicide. That at thirty-six I probably have another good forty-five to fifty years on this planet and I didn’t think I would see this in my lifetime. It’s how little faith I had in the America and if I felt that way at thirty-six, what does that say about us?
Quite honestly America, I didn’t think you had it in you.
I came home when I was young and asked my father if Martin Luther King cheated on his wife. Some kid at school had told me that. My father told me America will do their best to dismantle powerful black people. Make their accomplishments seem smaller. Ruin their reputations. He may have had affairs but that doesn’t take away from what he did do. For the few things my father got wrong, I’m always amazed at the things he got right. Watching candidates belittle community organizing knowing the backbone of their campaign is run by volunteers. Questioning Obama’s citizenship, parentage and my personal favorite, accusing him of murder to garner sympathy votes when he’s ten points ahead in the polls. That black people will vote for a candidate just because he’s black and somehow that’s different than whites not voting for a candidate because they’re black (see the Bradley Effect). Claiming no one knows who he really is after he’s written two books, aired an infomercial on seven networks, participated in twenty-seven debates and ran a two year campaign.
But that was then and this is now.
I live in a different America. An America where grass root campaigning works. Where the Bradley Effect has been replaced by the Obama Effect. Where an African-American candidate can not only win, but double his opponents Electoral votes. Where people stopped being apathetic and created the largest voter turnout since 1968. Where states with few minorities that vote traditionally Republican, voted Democrat.
This isn’t about winners and losers. This is about we aren’t who we thought we were and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we’re capable of more than we are. And if this isn’t the right man, we know when he does come he won’t be cast aside because he doesn’t match what has come before. We had Roosevelts and Lincolns and we’re due for another.
So in the days to come, the months and years to come, when you see the pictures of the people who migrated to the Washington DC mall, most of them for the first time, know Natalie and I are standing somewhere in there. That we went to be a part of history and I when my grandchildren are telling me what they learned in school I can tell them I was there. That their grandmother and I stood on that frozen mall forty-five years after another African-American changed the world and watched it happen again.
And when they ask me if they can someday be the President of the United States I can tell them, with absolute certainty, "Yes you can."