Roots and Wings

Giving thanks for the women who made Obama.


Nov. 27, 2008--In this season of thanksgiving, I'm grateful for women. Not just my female friends, relatives and colleagues but women whose oft-uncelebrated sacrifices keep the world running.

Women like the ones President-elect Barack Obama has lost, and the one with whom he remains. They all remind me of a beautiful, little-known song: "Roots and Wings."

They're what great parents and spouses give their loved ones: grounding to feel secure, wings to soar. The song, written by Washington, D.C.-area guitarist-songwriter Lea, says that having roots and wings give people an unmistakable feeling: "I'm not scared of anything."

Today, Michelle Obama, the President-elect's most visible source of both roots and wings, is consumed with preparing her daughters to leave their lifelong home. As jubilant as Michelle Obama must be over her husband's victory--and over finally having her family "under one roof," as she described it on 60 Minutes--part of her must be aching.

The world, of course, is fixated on her husband. After a brutal campaign, he has taken on a perfect storm of wars and economic woes—all while mourning his beloved grandmother. With so much distracting us, it's easy to forget it's only been three weeks.

What's it like, losing your life's most powerful link to your past while achieving its greatest triumph?

Madelyn Dunham—the grandmother with whom Obama came of age in Hawaii—provided Obama with his early life's roots. His mother gave him his wings. In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama describes Stanley Ann Dunham—his mother hated her masculine first moniker--as a sensitive child who rejected organized religion when she observed "godly" people hiding their dirty secrets under sanctity's cloak. Yet she took her son to churches, Buddhist temples and Hawaiian burial sites to see how religion helps people "understand the deeper truths in their lives."

This Midwestern girl's openness allowed her to marry men from Kenya and Indonesia—choices no doubt astounding to her peers. The gifts of her compassion, years abroad, and receptivity to seeing foreign worlds through an embracing lens would influence her son's global vision, his search for common ground with opponents, and his seemingly crazy, "I'm not scared of anything" belief, which enabled him to become President.

As a black mother, I've been scared of plenty, especially the limitations racism would place on my sons. On Nov. 4, two white women—Obama's mother and grandmother, the Bank of Hawaii vice-president who taught him to embrace hard work—helped to change that.

But they're gone. Now, the woman in whose capable hands they left him has her own concerns.