I’m a sucker for an inspired speech and President Obama’s address to the NAACP last week knocked me flat. When I thought I could be moved no further, he reduced me to uncommon tears:
"I don't come from a lot of wealth. I got into my share of trouble as a kid. My life could easily have taken a turn for the worse. But that mother of mine gave me love; she pushed me, and cared about my education; she took no lip and taught me right from wrong. Because of her, I had a chance to make the most of my abilities. I had the chance to make the most of my opportunities. I had the chance to make the most of life."
His words resonated in my most wounded and triumphant shadow lands, beating like an ancestral drum, prompting in me the audacity to compare my childhood with the president’s.
Both of us had charismatic fathers we barely knew. His was educated; mine was not. They both died too young.
As a child, Barack Obama enjoyed a lavish life compared to my Welfare-aided, abuse-ridden, vermin-infested upbringing. But the alienation, longing, and suffering—due largely to the color of his skin—were painful, soul-shaping, profound.
My multi-racial background inspired in me a point-of-view but my Caucasian looks allowed me privileges of spirit he did not enjoy (read his autobiography Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance).
My mother was, like Ann Dunham, the president's mother, wildly dynamic but not nearly as accomplished. Life and circumstance conspired to beat my mother down. The core of her problem: her mother died in childbirth, leaving her to be raised by a violent father.
Lenore Monita Looney fled to the big city of Richmond from the coalfields of Grundy, Virginia when she was thirteen. The collective violence she experienced and her incessant running toward a light she never seemed to catch, incinerated her brilliance and inflamed her gift for cruelty.
This is where Ann Dunham and my mother converge:
Both women insisted that education was their children’s path to a better life.
Both women understood that there would be no ascending the crimes of the past but through knowledge.
Both women made huge sacrifices and gut-wrenching decisions in order to ensure their children went to something that should be every child’s right: good schools.
I bear stubborn, working class pride that my primary education was through the public school system. I bear scars from whippings I received when my mother decided that a B in math was unacceptable. I do not condone or honor her methods but I am grateful for her vision. Even during long nights without electricity, she never allowed doubt to creep into the lightless room: I was going to go to college, come hell or high water.
One of my great sorrows is that my mother did not live long enough to see me graduate. But she did live long enough to see me walk through the vaulted doors of higher education. I am no fool: I know I got there on the sheer wings of my mother’s courage.
I suspect, and fervently hope, that my president, in both the quiet wonder of a pre-dawn White House and the concussive roar of post-speech applause, hears a swift flutter of wings and recognizes that he carries within him an awesome gift, one that he must continue to nourish and share if our nation is to ascend to its higher nature: his mother’s wisdom.