Today I attended the inauguration of the first African-American president. The atmosphere in the theater was dignified yet anticipatory. Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor of Massachusetts, received a hero’s welcome and spoke with warmth and humor. Henry Louis Gates, well-known Harvard professor (and drinker of beer with President Obama and Sgt. James Crowley) was in the audience, smiling broadly. The president spoke inspiringly of a “new beginning”.
No, I’m not referring here to President Obama. I’m describing the inauguration of Dr. M. Lee Pelton, the first African-American president of Emerson College, where I teach. While the significance of the event may pale in comparison to the election and inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States, it inspired the same feeling in me and, I believe, in the rest of the audience, that that historic presidential occasion did.
And still does. Call it “hope and change”, call it pride, call it any number of things, but the feeling boils down to this: I’m rooting for President Obama. And, yes, I’m rooting for him in part because he’s (part) black.
Don’t get me wrong—there are a myriad of reasons other than race why I am in favor of President Obama and opposed to Mitt Romney (among them, as Joe Biden would say, “Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive!”). And I would never support him if I didn’t agree with his policies and have faith in his judgment. But this column is not about policy, it’s about the importance of race and ethnicity and gender and image in American politics and pop culture.
I’m rooting for President Obama because it matters that this country has an African-American president, especially considering our repugnant history of slavery and racism. And it matters that the first black president be re-elected.
I’m rooting for President Obama because it matters that people stop saying things like “Mitt Romney looks presidential” because he is a tall white man with a touch of gray at the temples. When we elected Obama in 2008, didn’t we change the template for what looks presidential? Didn’t we decide that a president could be a non-white and hopefully, someday soon, a non-man? Besides, think of the way Obama carries himself: with dignity and calm and grace. To me, that looks presidential.
I’m rooting for President Obama because I still think about the young African-American boy who wanted to touch Obama’s head because their hair was so similar. Presumably, the boy hadn’t seen many people in power who look like him. If a picture says a thousand words, that one shouted a million. It shouted, “Yes, you can.”
I’m rooting for President Obama because I can’t recall too many romantic comedies or dramas or television shows about an African-American couple. There have been a few, for sure, but not many. Not even with megastars like Will Smith or Denzell Washington. And the Cosby Show ended 20 years ago! It matters that people see Barack and Michelle Obama as a couple they can relate to. It’s important that the image of a black couple is reinforced more often in our pop culture.
I’m rooting for President Obama because I’m alarmed by the ridiculous and racially motivated allegations against him: he’s a Muslim, he wasn’t born in the United States, he’s a Communist, he’s the “Food Stamps President”, etc., etc. Such things would be laughable if so many people didn’t believing them. And if there weren’t so many politicians and business people who are all too willing to incite hatred by playing on people’s ignorance and fear and prejudice.
I’m rooting for President Obama because the lack of people of color on the floor at the 2012 Republican National Convention was an embarrassment. But not as embarrassing as the incident there where two people allegedly threw nuts at a black CNN camera operator while saying, “This is how we feed animals.”
I’m rooting for President Obama because it matters. It all matters.