Free Our Minds

Obama's unique background helped him break through shackles most of us didn't even realize we wore.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

I thought a lot on Election Day about limitations, how we as Americans agreed both explicitly and implicitly, from the nation’s founding, that a black man would never become president. Masters certainly knew it. And from the wretched status to which they were consigned, the slaves no doubt could scarcely imagine it.

Yet, in a political campaign that began with most African Americans pooh-poohing the possibility that whites would vote for a black man and with large numbers of whites suddenly ready to do just that, Barack Obama tapped into the perfect historic moment of cross-racial yearning.

It has left me feeling bittersweet at what came before, for I have been forced to admit a truth to myself about racism and its limiting impact. I realized, quite sadly, that I had dutifully voted every four years for a parade of white male presidential candidates while scarcely lamenting the fact that this office remained the hardest, highest, most coveted barrier against the full and unfettered participation of non-whites in our political system.

Because I never believed that white voters would elevate a person of color to the presidency in my lifetime, I had in effect accepted the “whites-only” rule of the presidency. I’m embarrassed to say: What a triumph of racism!

So I think it is only fitting to “unpack” this idea of limitations, to dissect this thing that will, of course, still plague us but that now will lack its old power.

Let’s face it. Racial limitations have defined our psyches as Americans. For African Americans especially, we have always had to consider the limits of our personal and collective ambitions; to think about just how far we could and could not expect to excel in a nation where racism has been so historically present. Without such calculation, it would have been impossible just to survive.

The slave had to know the physical limits of the plantation and had to know how to circumscribe his behavior to avoid the lash. After slavery, we had to be damned certain to understand the limits of our so-called freedom, especially when Reconstruction turned to ethnic cleansing and Jim Crow was let loose on the land.

Later, in the modern era, we had to know when voting would be deadly—the ultimate limitation. And we had to know how hard to push, to fight, to secure our rights, to test the limits of America’s promise. We risked the blows that took too many lives, until, at last, we won full rights in the 1960s. We were protected by the Constitution. And we could vote—for whomever we chose, black or white.

And yet, we always knew that the ultimate prize of our political system was off-limits. Not by law, not by decree, but by long-held custom. Shirley Chisholm ran. Jesse Jackson ran. But white America (and back then such a monolithic group was far more real than today) wasn’t having it. Racism was its limitation.