How Change Looks in America

October 17, 2008
Category: Uncategorized

Back in March of 2007, I was sitting on my bedroom floor making robots out of Legos with my 6-year-old when Barack Obama took the podium at the Brown Chapel AME church in Selma, Ala. It was a significant moment in the making of the Democratic contender and, depending upon what happens on November 4th, possibly the making of a president.

I told Noah, my youngest child, that we’d have to take a break from the construction project to listen to the speech.

“We wanted to watch this because that man is running for president,” I explained.

“Cool,” Noah said, hardly looking up.

“Do you think he can win?” I asked.

He shrugged.

My little test was over. I thought, for a moment, that he’d see the profound significance of my question –- a black man running to become the 44th president of the United States; the first time it’s even looked remotely possible. I thought his answer would tell me whether our country had changed.

Instead, he shrugged.

I knew how big it was that Obama was at Brown AME, a modest little church that’s a few blocks from the Voting Rights Museum and practically around the corner from the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where 44 years ago marchers were clubbed by state troopers on horseback; a day they call Bloody Sunday. This church, not far from the start of the mile-long city, was where civil rights greats preached. It was the womb of change.

And yet, Noah shrugged. In his nonchalance, I thought, was hope as much as innocence. That he saw no great consequence in the moment gave the moment its profundity. How far must we have come that a black child was totally unimpressed that a black man had the audacity to think he could be president? How much change, in fact, must we already have achieved that he would merely shrug?

I’d been in Brown AME with my oldest children more than a decade before, when the distance was barely 30 years between our visit and the successful march across the bridge led by Martin Luther King Jr. There were plenty of reasons to think we hadn’t traveled all that far since, were we to judge by the O.J. fallout and the riots after Rodney King.

And yet a mere decade later, we see reporter John King on CNN explaining that the electoral numbers favor Obama. By a lot.

The Democratic candidate runs under the mantra “Change you can believe in,” and the Republican has adjusted the line to say, “Change is coming.” I believe the truth of it is that the change has already happened.

Change never waits its turn. It does not ask permission. It needs no electoral votes to prevail.We should dispense, especially in my profession, with the question of whether America is ready for a black president. Let me put aside for now my revulsion that the question is asked at all. The fact is that America spoke on the matter months and months ago, long before the Democratic primaries were done, when there were only two Democrats standing –- a black man and a white woman. America has been speaking on the subject over and over again, in senatorial and congressional and gubernatorial races. In sports and culture and education and in our communities.

America has said, “Challenge me, demand of me, aspire –- yes, even hope –- and I will show you who I can be.” The change has already happened, the one that says we are, in fact, ready, and all those who would try to stop it by exploiting petty bigotry with race-baiting and all these xenophobic allusions to terrorism will fail, because it is as though they are trying to stop the sunrise and it is already high noon.

Let me say this, though. Just because we have changed does not mean that racism is dead. Congressman John Murtha had to apologize not long ago for calling a part of western Pennsylvania racist, and it may be that by his painting with too broad a brush, then backing down, this latest racial dustup during the campaign will only serve to obscure the whole truth of America.

There are racists in western Pennsylvania. Maybe lots of them. But they no more totally define the region or the state or this country than does the multicultural Kumbaya surrounding Obama.

We are a complex nation, and we change our ideas, our aspirations, our visions of our noblest selves sometimes long before we defeat our innermost demons.

Change never waits its turn. It does not ask permission. It needs no electoral votes to prevail. It arrives as a viral notion that spreads on the winds in search of a host who can look in the mirror and see an image of possibility. We’ve slowed and sabotaged change in this country, but never stopped it, by limiting the image in that mirror to only one gender, only a few shades of white, only one, gilded road of privilege. So we often look in the mirror and see who we’d like to become long before we get there.

That is how we change in America. We see what is possible. And then we make it happen.

So when I asked my 6-year-old what he thought of Obama’s chances; when I asked him, in fact, if he thought he, Noah, could be president. He shrugged. And then, he said this:

“Well, I do like him.”

“Really,” I said. “Why?”

“Because,” Noah said, “he looks just like me.”

A version of this essay was delivered as a speech to the “Greater Pinellas Democratic Club.”