I had the incredible pleasure this past weekend of being a part of the 3rd Annual C.I.R.C.L.E. Conference for educators. I joined some pretty amazing presenters as I led a workshop on building relationships across difference, and I had the fortune of seeing Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr, founder of the White Privilege Conference, speak. He had some awesome points about the work that I am privileged to do for a living, and he reminded me that “no matter how much work we do, there’s still deeper digging ahead.”
One of the points that Dr. Moore made that most resonated with me was about President Barack Obama. Lately I have found myself profoundly frustrated with the President. I have thought on a number of occasions, “Why did I vote for this man?” and “Can I vote for this man again?” Too often I have felt like he was doing little more than continuing many of the destructive practices and policies of his predecessors. Yet Dr. Moore reminded me of something pretty darn important in his opening remarks at the C.I.R.C.L.E. conference.
“Sometimes I don’t even listen. Sometimes I turn off the sound and just watch the President. Seeing him standing there in that position – It’s medicine.”
I realized then that couched in my criticism, much of it legitimate political criticism, is an incredible amount of white privilege. It is an incredible privilege to be able to forget the context surrounding our nation’s first Black president, a context which I often do forget. I forget that the image of President Barack Hussein Obama is more than a simple image of the president but rather is the portrait of a man born to a black Kenyan father and white American mother who rose through the ranks of local and national politics to become president of the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth.
In being shaken from my privileged stupor by Dr. Moore, I couldn’t help but think of my experience in the days before and after the 2008 election teaching in a predominantly African American and Black school on Chicago’s west side. I thought about the lecture given by my cooperating teacher entitled, “Yes We Did” that included, among others, the images below to remind our students of the context in which the first Black president was elected.
On the day after the election, I also had the students do a writing exercise about how they felt upon learning that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Here’s an excerpt from something I composed after the election:
For the past few months, I have seen my students interested in politics in a way that I highly doubt they would have been if this presidential election had been the typical two rich, white men duking it out for the highest office in the land. If Barack Obama’s candidacy has done nothing else, it has surely helped young people who have long been uninterested or alienated by politics find a reason to sit up and pay attention.
I teach at a school on Chicago’s West Side where the students are predominantly African American/black (and those who are not black are Latino/Latina). The median income for a family in my kids’ neighborhood is around $18,000. My kids have it rough in lots of ways, yet every day I enter that school building and find amazing and brilliant young minds who really just want to learn and who want to be encouraged.
Today in particular, though, I saw something different, something pretty incredible. We began our World Studies class with a writing period where the students recorded their thoughts and feelings about Barack Obama being elected last night. When we shared out, here are some of the words we heard: excited, nervous, confused, surprised, included. One student said that she felt like an African American with the stress on the latter word for the first time. In the midst of these thoughtful reflections, one young man’s words truly gave me pause. He told us that Obama’s election made him feel free.
Now, stop and think about that. Freedom is a powerful word, particularly in the African American experience. How many 15 year olds in prior presidential elections would have described the outcome as liberating? What does it say about our history and our present environment that led a young black man from Chicago’s impoverished West Side to feel free because of one election result.
I truly believe that white people have no real way of understanding what it means to African Americans to see a black man elected. To begin to understand, though, we can simply consider the words of this one young, black man: “I felt free.”
As with my criticism of his budget proposal, there is plenty of legitimate critiques of the policies of Barack Obama to be lodged from both sides. In all of this, though, maybe we each need to follow Dr. Moore’s lead and take a minute to recognize the vital medicine that comes from simply turning down the volume and watching a strong black man stand before us as the President of the United States of America.