Crispus Attucks was told, as he stood at the front of a crowd of unruly citizens harassing British soldiers in Boston Massachusetts, “this ain’t none of your affair.” When the soldiers opened fire, he was the first to die. Barack Obama, as President-elect of the United States of America, while dealing with Israel’s current air strikes against Hamas, is also being told, in musical verse, that he’s “a magic negro.”
Over the course of two hundred nineteen years, many gains have been made in terms of granting full equality to all citizens of the United States. Black folk have attained the right to vote. Women have attained the right to vote. Segregation by race is no longer legal. Japanese American citizens can live wherever they want. People from China are allowed to immigrate to the United States. Slavery has been outlawed. That none of these issues should really have been contested is moot. But the marginalization of numerical minority groups is rooted in the American landscape as surely as the ideals we aspire to. And full equality has yet to be achieved in some areas still.
So while I celebrate President-elect Barack Hussein Obama’s rise to the highest office in the land, I am also cognizant that Jim Clark’s spirit is alive and well today. I am cognizant that I had to send my young black, Chicano, Chilean children to school on November 5th armed against their second and third grade classmates’ “innocent ignorance” when they commented that “Obama won just because he’s black.” I am cognizant that Rush Limbaugh (who said Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama was “all about race”), Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and their ilk and followers who may or may not believe that black people are inferior use their rhetoric and their megaphones to continue the oppressive racism of Andrew Jackson and John Wilkes Booth, of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Kanye West’s statement that “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” in the wake of the President’s inaction when the levies broke, and my brother the teacher’s latest experience of being pulled over by the police after the officer watched three other (white) drivers make the same left turn, and the assassination plots and attempts constantly monitored against this President-elect remind me that much as things CHANGE, the more they stay the same.
Crispus Attucks was the first man to die in the struggle for American independence. The paradoxical nature of an enslaved/escaped black man dying for the freedom and creation of a country in which he was considered less than human by the legal framework that defined it should be lost on no one. The same way that the poetic justice of a man whose father was a black Kenyan and whose mother was a white Kansan, who is African American by nationality as well as visage and life experience being elected to lead that same country should be lost on no one.
In speaking with my sister-in-law and her parents on Christmas Eve, I asked, “do you realize what it means, to have him elected to be President of these United States?” Forty years ago, black people were being killed for wanting to register to vote. Forty years ago, one man was shot for encouraging black people to dream of equality. Forty years ago, Barack Obama was seven years old.
As we look forward to the changes President Obama will enact both inside and outside of our country, it is important that we take a look back as well to understand the moment that we are standing in, the moments others have worked for, and the legacy that we are heirs to and guardians of for the next generation.
Happy New Year!