It's official. For the first time in the history of this great nation, we have a black president. Millions of people are excited about President Barack Obama, as they should be. As a post-civil rights baby, I was close enough to the "struggle" to experience the growing pains of America moving toward an integrated society, yet removed enough to have hope for a better future. But, as someone who calls people of all nationalities friends and family, I never expected to see a black president in my lifetime. Why? Because real change takes time, and as my mother says, "Change is a process."
Perhaps being born to a mother raised on a farm designed by Thomas Jefferson, shaped by a father who embraced African culture and philosophies, exposed to the precarious politics of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, while forming my identity as a teen in the capital of the Confederacy, had a little to do with it. I often found myself on the margins of society, at least until we moved to Richmond, Va., where I saw black people in power. Even witnessing the election of L. Douglas Wilder as the first black governor in United States, post-Reconstruction, did not prompt me to consider a black president. I stood on one of the coldest days I remember in Richmond to watch his inauguration, and still it never crossed my 17-year-old mind that there would be a black president in my lifetime.
Even when Obama threw his hat into the ring, it seemed like a long shot. This dynamic young man was being painted as an elitist for having overcome obstacles that have hobbled many. He was raised initially by a single mother, abandoned by his father and eventually taken in by his grandparents. With that much change going on in a young person's life, one would think that he would crave consistency. What did he do? He went out and created the family that he wanted, offering a real-life picture of what many black people experience in this country but rarely see represented in popular spaces -- a strong, family unit.
Obama was not born wealthy and made his living through the one channel that is available to Americans -- a free education. Educated in public schools, he made it to Columbia and then to Harvard. Most people are applauded for that, but what Obama experienced was an anti-intellectual backlash that is pervasive in American society. Who does this "highfalutin'" Negro think he is by running for president with limited political experience? Instead of embracing him for achieving the American dream, many rebuffed him. Many of us know that the American dream was not conceptualized with oppressed peoples in mind, which is why we still have such a hard time figuring out how to "deal with" educated blacks and those with money, status and power.
People questioned Obama's blackness because of his biracial heritage, when in fact, by definition, he is truly an African-American. His dad is from Kenya. His mom is from Kansas. You cannot get any more African-American than that. But it was those (black) folks who were questioning his blackness, as if we are in any position to do so. Statistically, most blacks are multiracial or biracial anyway, so to question his blackness is an exercise in self-loathing. Further, many non-blacks were saying that he wasn't really black. Why? Because he wasn't the Timberland, white wife-beater, baggy-jean-wearing brother of their nightmares. They did not want to see what he had in common with these folks -- challenging childhood, existing on the margins of society, and quite frankly, having black skin in America. Obama stood tall, embracing all of himself and symbolically embracing all of America, by defining himself on his terms.
It was exactly this approach to life, when applied to the political arena, that catapulted him to the presidency of the United States of America.
As Americans do, we have diminished the greatness of this extraordinary man and his monumental achievement by commodifying his historical accomplishment. Everywhere you go, Obama is for sale. Hats, T-shirts, coins, towels, posters, tattoos, Obama as Jesus -- you name it and it's for sale. How funny is it that they impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich for trying to sell Obama's Senate seat? I suspect that he thought that he could get in on the gravy train as well. Many have figured out how to package the idea of equality and Obama into much-desired collateral, which is disingenuous at best and perverting something truly groundbreaking at worst.
I guess it plays into people's dementia about the challenges that our country faces. Obama should not be deified or have the weight of the world placed squarely on his shoulders. He is a man and that is all. He has taken an oath to protect and manage this country for the next four years. The election of Obama is not a shortcut for the work that we need to do as Americans. We still need to ensure justice, access and equality for all. The election of Obama means many things, but it does not mean that all is well in the world. It simply means that countless Americans came together to elect him because there was a profound need for change.
Real change is a slow process, and, as we celebrate the election of the nation's first black president, let's make sure that we try not to get caught up in the symbolism of Obama's election and continue to do the real work that needs to be done -- unifying America, protecting our citizens, recovering economically and truly creating an inclusive society.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for RushmoreDrive.com.