2009 Archives

Karen M. Thomas:

Far away from Barack Obama's inauguration, change has already begun


The following is from the Jan. 20, 2009, edition of The Dallas Morning News.  Karen M. Thomas is a lecturer in the Journalism Division of SMU's Meadows School of the Arts.

January 20, 2009

Special contributor to The Dallas Morning News

This week, I had hoped to be in Washington, D.C., with my family, the four of us part of the millions lining the streets for the inauguration of our country's first African-American president.

I wanted to be there to witness history. I wanted to be there because the election of Barack Obama struck me with an emotional force I didn't see coming. But most of all, I wanted to be there with my two girls, girls who look a lot like Malia and Sasha. I want Nya and Brooke to believe. Like most parents, I want them to think that, yes, they can be anything they want.

For us, there is a personal connection to the Obamas. The family resonates with us in a way that no other political family has. A close friend described it best.

"He's our peer," she told me during a conversation at the beginning of the long campaign season.

My husband and I are roughly the same age as the Obamas. Thanks to good educations and open doors, we have built meaningful careers where our work entails helping others. We share the commitment to help open doors for those less fortunate. We draw heavily on our faith. And we understand that our role as black parents is to instill the same values in our girls, to help them grow stronger and go further than even we can dream, even if it means career, financial and personal sacrifices. It's what our parents did for us.

We recognize those same values in the family now being installed in the White House. In a way, they are us. Even the dog breeds they are considering look like our beloved pound find, Rosie.

So the inauguration called.

But life began to press down – school exams, the start of my teaching semester, the country's financial tailspin pinching our pennies. Attending the inauguration became a long shot.

I mourned this reality but kept hope alive that we would go. Then a recent conversation with Brooke, my 9-year-old, helped me view things differently. Let me explain.

By the time the election came, I admired the integrity of Obama's campaign, his intelligence and fierce strategic thinking, and his ability to reach across the great divides of America and unite. The fact that he was African-American didn't make me vote for him – it just made the experience all the sweeter.

I voted early. I stood patiently in line that October day, electronically marked my ballot and then made my way past the line now spilling out of my polling place. As I walked, I looked into the faces of those waiting. I saw the hope. I saw dreams moving from "someday" to "now." The emotion washed over me. I made it to my car and sat there, unable to move, the tears welling up and spilling down.

Throughout the election, I realize now, I was holding my breath. I am part of a generation that has benefited from the civil rights movement. I am raising my children in a middle-class household. And yet somehow for me that particular American dream was stuck. Maybe it was that feeling of always having to work twice as hard to prove you are capable. Maybe it's those racial slights that have tumbled together over the years, damaging something internal that I never gave voice to. I'm still not quite sure what it is. I just know that until Election Day, I just couldn't believe.

But the other day at breakfast, Brooke looked up from her bowl of oatmeal as the Obamas appeared on television. There is always a pause when we see them – a normal black family we know exists in America but we so rarely see on national television.

"How much do they have to pay to live in the White House?" Brooke asked me.

"They don't have to pay," I told her. I explained it's a job perk. And then I got carried away.

"Just imagine if Dad was president, just imagine if you were moving into the White House, just imagine ..."

"Mom, you could be president," Brooke said. And she turned back to her cereal. Her words sank in, slowly at first, and then I understood. There wasn't a trace of sarcasm. There wasn't a hint of wishful thinking. For her, it was simply possible: I could be president and so could she.

So, I no longer feel the need to brave the cold and stand in the streets. It doesn't really matter if we actually attend or not, although, of course, it would have been wonderful to stand in the middle of history. The inauguration, I have decided, is the outer wrapping of an inner change that we have already begun.

Brooke believes. She believes in a way I could not. I had to learn what was possible. For her, it simply is. And for that lesson alone, it's enough.

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