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That Great Getting-Up Morning

When Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York) lost the Iowa Caucuses, a part of me sighed.. and perhaps a part of me died.

I have two daughters, aged 12 and 8. I dreamed of the November day when I could turn to both my daughters, who are Latina, and say, it is just as I told you: You can be president. No one can ever say girls aren't as good as boys, not ever again. The boss man is a lady. For my elder daughter, particularly, this moment would have a particular and specific personal meaning. When she was born, in 1995, a friend was an assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services under Donna E. Shalala. Though that friend, Hilary Clinton sent a pink onesie to Francie that read, First Woman President of the United States. That's how far away this eventuality seemed then -- like a slogan or a joke. It proclaimed that my daughter -- who has all kind of cred, as a person of color, as part of a family of seven children and for the first years of her life, the daughter of a single mom -- might, perhaps in 50 years when I was long gone, hope to be president.

Instead, that train pulled into the station far sooner than we could have imagined. What a fine thing that was.

Seeing the real chance that it could pull out, vanishing tail lights, is sad by any reckoning. The train might not come again while I'm living.

And yet, even for my daughters, it is more important that Sen. Barak Obama (D-Illinois) capture the Democratic nomination for President, and that he be elected.

It's more important for women, for men, for our sense of ourselves as American people. Without it being too lofty, it is important for our collective soul.

The stain on our nation's soul is not the shenanigans of generations of greedy and callous politicians masquerading as leaders. It is not our swaggering through the world as empire, nor even our lies about that. Those are wrongs, but all countries do wrong.

Our sin is pretending to be the last best hope of earth only thirteen generations after slavery.

It is the stain of once having been a nation where human beings owned other human beings and considered them less than human. It is the stain of having -- in my lifetime -- divided up restaurants, schools, airports and buses with the clear understanding that this division did not symbolize a separate equality but a distinct separation by merit. It is the shame that comes of having needed to pass legislation -- in my lifetime, when I was already able to read and write -- to enfranchise every American regardless of color.

My grandmother lived in the south for a time in her girlhood, and we often visited her brother and his wife there, in Atlanta. I was very small, perhaps four, one day at the airport when I stepped up and took a drink at the water fountain. My great uncle pulled me away, not roughly, but decisively. Because my Uncle Bill was the gentlest of men, I asked what was wrong. Looking away from me into the middle distance, he explained, "That's the colored fountain."

I knew what he meant by "colored," a word which, like Josephine Baker, I still find more poetic than offensive. From Chicago, I had always gone to racially integrated schools, had black and Asian and Puerto Rican friends. I can remember asking my uncle, "Is the water different?"

And as was true for so many things when I was small, as is true for everyone, he said, "You'll understand when you're older."

When I was older, I did understand.

What I understood not only disgusted but terrified me. Living with racially prejudiced adults was like living with people who were constantly drunk. Racism made them irrational and foolish. They believed things I knew not to be true and pretended they were true and tried to make me believe them, too. My father called Italian people "niggers with jobs," even though my godparents and, indeed, most of the people in our west-side neighborhood were first or second-generation Italians. My mother confided that women who married black men were ruined sexually, that they became insatiable and bad-tempered. My mother was an intelligent and well-read woman. I could sense, as children will, that she was repeating what she had been told rather than stating her own beliefs. Why? My grandfather's best friend, a fellow conductor on the El train, was a black man called Jimmy Day. Jimmy Day came to our house to visit. My father called Mr. Day a "white nigger."

How could they believe this was acceptable? How could they say these words to a child without shame? Janet Cabanban's mother was Irish, her father Filipino. Lucy Higgins' father was black, her mother a Japanese war bride. These families lived the life we lived -- renting apartments instead of owning houses, working with their hands, aspiring to the lower middle class. I could see that that Janet and Lucy played with the same toys as I did, wore the same dresses and jeans from Sears, shopped at the same market.

I could not get my mind around the things my mother's brother told me -- that black people smelled foul when they sweated, a way white people never did. I knew they did not. Lucy Higgins and her brother, Andy, smelled as tangy and salty as I did when we ran up and down the sidewalks until the street lamps came on.

What confused me more, confused me utterly, was that my grandmother, my mother's mother, was nearly full-blooded Cree, an American Indian - a beige person. She didn't admit to it; but I had an Indian name, given me by one of my aunts. I had Indian things.

Where were the lines? How could I believe anything else my parents said if the human lie they told was so basic?

Ironically, my own older children refused to believe that there ever was such a thing as a lynching. They refused to believe that there ever were schools for African-American kids and schools for kids of European descent. I had to perpetrate a cruelty similar to my parents' to me to make them understand the exact opposite thing -- to get them to believe the "story" of Emmett Till, that he was just a 14-year-old child, the "story" of Rosa Parks, the "story" of James Meredith.

When they finally did believe me, they were angry at me. They could not believe that I, their mother, had let such things happen, although many of them hapened before I was born.

Fashion and music and Academy awards cannot sponge away the essential sin. The fact that African-American culture informs the way our children sing and dance and dress and talk cannot sponge it away.

It is not for the pride and well-being of black Americans that Barak Obama's potential presidency is more important than Hilary Clinton's -- although, oh, that is hard to part with.

It is for the pride and well-being of the rest of us. In the moment we can see ourselves for the racists we are, we can see ourselves as what we were. We can lift our heads in a way we have not been able, for thirteen generations, to do.

I still do want to live to see someone addressed as "Madame President." Nothing could be finer, except one thing.

I guess it's the duty of my generation and the ones who follow to right the wrongs my children expected me to have righted before I was born.

It falls to us to prove that "cultural diversity" is not fully as much a myth as the lies my parents told me. It breaks my heart to change my allegiance from a great woman who is a seasoned leader to a hopeful young man who may be as callow as he is eloquent and who will have to learn on the job.

That I will do so is because there is no choice. I'll vote to reclaim my own pride, and my children's, in what will certainly be a candidacy and a presidency riddled with ugliness and shame.. and touched by glory.



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Thanks for this. As someone who's been skeptical about Obama, I was suprised by my lack of disappointment at the outcome last night. While my reasons may be weighted a bit more to how he and the other candidates match up in my mind against what I now see as the likeliest Republican nominees, your deeper reasons are quite compelling as well, and beautifully expressed.

-Huntington Sharp, Red Room


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In a perfect world

In a perfect world, Sen Clinton would run with Obama on her ticket as a potential VP. He gets some seasoning and she would be a great leader. They would be unstoppable ! He could run after her term. Don't believe it will happen, we don't live in a perfect world. One can always dream.

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Beautifully put!

How thrilling that the Oval Office's glass ceiling is finally splintering from the force of these two inspiring candidates.

-Naomi from Red Room

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The Great Getting-Up Morning

I found your story to be both eloquent and heartfelt. As a young person being able to vote for the first time in this election I hope to have the opportunity to help but the first African American into the Oval Office. Thank you for your beautiful essay.

-Luke Milliron

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Barack Obama

Thank you..... I wrote it with tears in my eyes and misspelled Barack!