Obama's Nation

By Donna Britt
Sunday, November 2, 2008

With the nation possibly on the brink of electing Barack Obama, what fascinates me isn't the transformation promised by the "Change You Can Believe In" candidate.

It's the change that had to occur within the rest of us to get him here.

Grief expert Molly Fumia has written that to be joyful in this world is "a brave and reckless act." Such courage springs not from the certainty of human experience but from the surprise. It takes courage in a cynical world, she says, "to be happily surprised."

What could be braver or more joyfully stunning than the nation's embrace of a presidential candidate who is the son of a white Kansan mother and black Kenyan father -- the product of a union that not so long ago would have been banned by 30 states? Some are dismayed by this astonishing event; others seem almost blase, viewing it as "inevitable progress."

But change of this magnitude doesn't just happen. We make it happen. Few of us know how to get our minds around something so seismic, so we pretend it isn't such a big deal. Yet while media types prognosticate about the "Bradley effect" and people waving monkey dolls at rallies, Americans have been quietly wrestling with their private response to this once-unimaginable phenomenon.

It's one thing to believe that you aren't prejudiced. It's another to exercise your largely untested tolerance through your vote for the world's most important job.

We shouldn't pretend that such choices are easy. Doing so dishonors the hard work it can take to transcend being raised in homes, communities and a nation where racism was actively asserted, subtly suggested or bubbled beneath the surface. As a black American, I should have easily rejected the whispers that suggested that I, and nearly everyone I loved and admired while growing up, was inferior. Yet for years, I worried that my hair, skin color, body type, speech, intelligence, loyalty, morals -- all the things I worked to perfect as a girl, student, daughter and citizen -- were deemed less worthy because I was a Negro.

If I could absorb such self-limiting claptrap; if the mother who adored me could describe my slightly kinky hair as "not nearly as bad" as her own; if one of my sons could say at age 4 that he disliked his terrific day-care center because "there are too many black people there"; and if the blond best friend of another son could tell his mother that he didn't like black people and that his buddy Darrell just couldn't be black -- how could I doubt racism's subtle insinuations in everybody's psyche?

Traces of intolerance, it seems, are in the water we drink, the air we breathe. One can't just stop drinking or breathing.

But if you're white, whom do you tell that you're struggling with voting for Obama not because of rants about "socialism" but because of deeply rooted fears that are difficult to examine, let alone admit?

If you're black, do you allow this unforeseen turn of events to challenge your assumptions -- and allow that racism may be less intractable, and people more open-minded, than your experience suggested? Isn't that what Michelle Obama's much-maligned comment about "really" being proud of her country for the first time as an adult was about -- being proud as a black person? As a descendant of slaves whose observations and experiences taught her to worry as most black women do: that prejudice might prevent her daughters' wonderfulness from being embraced, her own brilliance from being acknowledged and her fellow citizens from trusting their children's future to any black man, even one as extraordinary as her husband?

The pride that such women feel over their countrymen rallying after Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina and every other crisis is real -- and informed by the knowledge that that's what Americans have always done. But even the most optimistic black folks doubted America was capable of this.

Being happily surprised by your neighbors' openheartedness is a good thing. It lifts everybody -- and we need to be buoyed as the nation wades into waters this unfamiliar.

Change is scary. Certainly, some "undecideds" are actually quite certain -- of their reluctance to help launch a black man, no matter how eloquent or inspiring or seemingly attuned to their needs, into the presidency. The campaign's undercurrents exert tremendous pressures on us all. Witness the hoax by the McCain volunteer who reported that a backward "B" carved into her face was the handiwork of a big black man angry about her presidential choice.

Hoping to spark anti-Obama backlash, she instead showed how insanely such undercurrents can spur some to behave.

Now that even stable people are saying that the change they crave most is for the election to be over, I have a suggestion:

For one shining moment, let's call a halt to our red-blue bickering and predicting. Rather than glancing back at our racist past or peering into our uncertain future, we'll allow ourselves a brief celebration of now. We'll be brave and reckless enough to be happily surprised by one undeniable change:

Against all sensible odds and reasoned predictions, untold numbers of Americans of every persuasion have opened their hearts, minds and souls to the possibility that a black man is the best choice to lead them. Whatever happens, an immeasurable amount of light has illuminated our darkness. Once such doors have been pried open, it's hard shutting them as tightly as before.

That's a change worth believing in.

Donna Britt, a former Post columnist, is writing her memoirs.

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