28 January 2009

When You're Ready, I'm Here

There was a great article by Jodi Kantor in the New York Times the day after the inauguration. "Nation's Many Faces in Extended First Family." If I'd written it the title would have been something like "Many Faces of the World Family in the First Family Tree" but it doesn't matter. The important thing is that the article presents a potential starting point for a public conversation or awareness I've longed for for a very long time.

I've been knee-jerk quick to take the soapbox when someone referred to Barack Obama as the first African American president. "He's not just African American!" I've shrieked. "What about his mother and her blood line?!" (I blogged about it two years ago in a post entitled "Identity.")

As the dark-skinned mother of a man whose father has white skin I've taken the whole thing extremely personally . In the face of resistance, ridicule, disgust and cynicism, I

My son, grandson and daughter-in-law on vacation last summer
persisted throughout my son's childhood, demanding that none of his heritage be erased or taken for granted. When asked to declare his racial identity (on the myriad forms parents complete at the beginning of each school year), I chose "mixed" or checked both "white" and "black" boxes.

His father explained to me before Wade was born that "black is dominant" so our son will look black and people will see him as black and so we should refer to him as black. I didn't argue. (I assiduously avoided arguments and alarm clocks while I was pregnant.) Someone else explained that by law in America, the child's official racial identity must match the mother's. I didn't argue.

Later I heard about a so-called one-drop law that makes everyone with a black parent or ancestor Black. Which ever way I looked at it, the explanations begged a hundred questions but I was pregnant and determined to minimize my stress level for nine months for the sake of the baby.

Many years later I happened to catch a PBS series on race that changed my life. The program was entitled "Race: The Power of an Illusion." It was my first exposure to the science of "race" and to the idea that there is no such thing! I immediately requested the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco purchase the complete series on cassette and I wrote a curriculum entitled "Final Conversations on Race in America" to include in their Religious Ed course offerings.

The class met in the evenings. Scheduling became a problem for the group of 9 or 10 adults who enrolled and the class ended after only 3 meetings. With a little retooling to update the material, I might offer the class again some day.

Getting closer to inauguration day, I listened to people of all colors refer to Obama as African American and observed the intense emotional significance attached to the label. I temporarily stashed the soapbox to take a look at things from ground level. It obviously means a lot to a lot of people to think of Obama as the first African-American president. It obviously means a lot to me to think of him as the first openly mixed "race" present of the U.S. and the family as the first brown-skinned first family. And no doubt we all have deep, heart-rending histories to support our projections.

The sight of the First Family, hell, the very thought of them does stir prideful identification in me: I've never been happier or felt more worthy and powerful in my life. "Yes, we can" and without excluding anyone, I simultaneously feel my membership in that we-of-color group.

A white guy surfing my couch last week explained the attachment to the "first Black president" label as the byproduct of past suffering. He tried to explain it to me but I couldn't get my head around it that day (in large part because I didn't want to....) Now I can. Years of oppression--whether self-inflicted or from without-- make my heart swell with pride now. Every denigration has been disproved. Every negative stereotype has been shattered. The relentless self-loathing must be tempered now with this beautiful, bright, strong reality.

Still, I long for the day--and I know it will come--when the significance of skin color in human affairs is on a par with eye or hair color. And perhaps some day, if the Earth survives, extraterrestrials will move among us. Entities who have no eyes or skin or hair and thus defy our racial naming conventions. Will their arrival usher in at last the final conversations on race?