I haven’t written much about the historical and social significance of electing Barack Obama as the first African-American president.
These are my nieces, Chloe on the left and Marissa on the right. They are my sister’s daughters and they were raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC. They are bi-racial – my brother-in-law is a doctor at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Chloe takes after her father, both in looks, temperament, and intelligence. Marissa takes after her mother for the same reasons.
My sister died last December from breast cancer before the Iowa Caucuses, so she didn’t have the benefit of seeing Obama win. I was in Maryland at the time attending her funeral and my brother-in-law was more than a bit surprised by the news. I’ve spoken to him several times since then and he remained highly skeptical throughout that a black man could be elected president. I’ve tried reaching him since the election but he’s been unavailable, so I can’t tell you what he’s thinking now. But I’m going to assume he’s shocked and joyful, to say the least.
I grew up in southeastern Wisconsin, in a lily-white community of 900. The community was too small to support a high school, so five neighboring communities pooled their youth. It wasn’t until I entered high school, at the age of 14, that I encountered any African-Americans. There was one black family out of all five communities.
My sister was 5 1/2 years older so she went to a different high school for a few years, and I can’t say whether she encountered blacks in high school, but I think not. She trained at Columbia Hospital, in Milwaukee, to become a nurse, and it’s most likely there that she had interactions with the African-American community.
We never discussed race that much, but I remember visiting her after she graduated from nursing school to discover she was the only white person on a female softball team. I don’t really know how that happened. A few years later she joined the Peace Corps and spent four years in Mauritania, Africa. It was when she returned to the United States that she met her husband.
She always advocated for racial equality and was a much stronger opponent of racism than my brother-in-law. I think he had given up hope and decided it was better to go along to get along. The last time I saw my sister was in August 2007 when I went to Maryland to help her get Chloe settled into boarding school. At the time she was angry that there weren’t more blacks enrolled at the school, even though the school professed to embrace diversity.
You might think my nieces are immune from racism, but I can assure you they aren’t. My brother-in-law has two older children from his first marriage, along with two bi-racial grandchildren. The entire family socialize regularly and often travel together. Marissa does not appear bi-racial, but her best friend is African-American and she doesn’t think twice about dating either blacks or whites. In some ways her world is more open because of these options, but she still feels the residual racism that permeates our society.
My greatest hope is that President-elect Obama will be the beginning of the end of racism, so all Americans, regardless of their color or ethnicity, can develop to their full potential.
My only wish is that my sister had lived long enough to see it happen.