Thursday, April 06, 2017

Obama’s Parting Gift: The Power Not to Fear White Racism

By Carvell Wallace

January 19, 2017

newyorker 
Growing up, I wondered whether I had any power or beauty within me. With Barack and Michelle in the White House, I knew I did.PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLES OMMANNEY / GETTY 

The only Inauguration I have attended, and probably the only one I ever will attend, was Barack Obama’s first, eight years ago. My wife and I were nearly broke, but we gathered money from the life insurance left by my mother, who had died of lung cancer six weeks before the election. We wrapped our California kids, ages five and three, in a million layers of clothing and hats, filled thermoses with soup and hot chocolate, shared hand-warmers among us, and packed as though we were braving the Arctic tundra. The temperature in Washington was in the twenties, and we were outside for eight hours. It must have been uncomfortable. Our kids must have suffered. Their mom and I must have bickered. But I don’t remember it that way. I remember laughing a lot and holding gloved hands. I remember taking turns hoisting our children on our shoulders, and our son waving a flag with Michelle’s and Barack’s faces on it. I remember the Metro car, packed with the bodies of strangers, breaking out into impromptu choruses of “We Shall Overcome.”

We felt hope that day. But that hope was the flip side of the terror, anguish, and frustration we had felt every single day before, living in a country that, for centuries, systematically abused many of its people, and then punished those people for trying to regain their humanity. To be black in America is a wild and endless assault on the senses. You can spend every day fighting off your spiritual and intellectual extinction.

For much of my childhood, I lived in a small, mostly white town along Appalachia, in the Rust Belt. By seventh grade, I spent days fighting with kids who called me nigger and nights secretly wishing I was white so that I wouldn’t have to. The message arrived early that blackness was, for some reason, something bad, something that made people hate me, something that made people angry. When I was twelve, a white man drove by in a car and threw a milkshake at me as I rode a skateboard. Blackness, I learned, was so hateful that it made adults assault random children. It was as if I had a disease that made other people want to hurt me.

And so I grew up afraid of racists. Even when I was safely at home, there was an unspoken idea that just outside the door there were men made of fire and hate who would laugh to see me suffer. When white friends talked road trips, I made up excuses. When race became the topic, I waited quietly for it to change. This is how racism is designed to work, of course: it’s a form of terrorism and mind control that seeks to will you into subservience, to make you afraid to advocate for your own humanity.

When we attended Obama’s Inauguration, we were high on the hope that there might be an end to all of this. We had always more or less trusted our government to protect us from foreign threats. Now it seemed that we might trust it to protect us from domestic ones, too.

And then we watched as Obama, in the early days of his Administration, treaded delicately in the thorny bramble of race, taking steps that pierced his flesh and drew blood. After the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested for trying to break into his own home, Obama chided the Cambridge police; his approval ratings, particularly among white voters, dipped severely. It would not be the last time he would wrongly calibrate the fervor of white America’s sensitivity around race. For eight years, we watched him trying to thread the impossible needle, searching for a message that would resonate evenly with a nation of people who seemed increasingly estranged from one another. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, and others bubbled up into a movement of protests. Soon, the idea that black lives mattered was branded by some as a terrorist threat; talk of race wars slithered to daylight from the damp crevices of American consciousness.

During the Obama years, many Americans became angrier, more defensive, and more afraid. The rise of Donald Trump, built on the message that there are barbarians at the gate, is a testament to that. But for me these eight years have had the opposite effect. I was more afraid at the beginning. My joy at Obama’s Inauguration could only exist because white racism had terrified me for decades, and I hoped that Obama would be my protector.

He couldn’t be. America’s illness is bigger than him. Nonetheless, his Presidency had a surprising effect on me: it changed my sense of what racism is. Obama was impeccable as a President and a politician: deeply informed, thoroughly prepared, intelligent, and forthright. He treated his job with a seriousness befitting the office. I did not agree with many of his policy decisions. But I believed that he undertook them with integrity, and with a conviction that they would yield the greatest good for the greatest number of people.


And still he was called names and branded by the opposition as a failure. His citizenship and religion were called into question. Republicans in the House and Senate preferred to nearly tank the country rather than appear to be in league with him. Newscasters vociferously questioned his fitness for the job. These reactions moved beyond the terrifying and into the cartoonish. White racism, which I used to take so seriously, came, more and more, to seem childish and pitiful to me.

Meanwhile, Barack and Michelle Obama—cool, collected, fiercely loyal to each other—have reflected back to me my own capacities. Representation does, in fact, matter. When I was alone among white kids, I wondered if I had any power or beauty within me. With Michelle and Barack in the White House, I knew I did.

I still consider my own destruction daily. I think about doomsday scenarios and potential horrors to come. But I do not fear them. I am clear on what my worth is and what the worth of each person is. I no longer hope to avoid arousing the demons of racism—I know that such an awakening is an unavoidable result of affirming my own humanity. And there is no longer a scenario, under any President, or any Administration, in which I would refuse to do that. I have a family whom I love, and I know the difference between right and wrong.

When Barack Obama first campaigned for President, he ran on hope. But hope, I have come to feel, is only needed by the fearful. What his Presidency left me with is power.

Carvell Wallace is a writer in Oakland.

Source: newyorker

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