There was nothing new in this. It was my six-year-old daughter Leslie and her best friend Maureen having one of their occasional dustups. Doors slam, feet patter and suddenly I’m grabbed on either side by a little girl – each absent a tooth – with their flushed faces upturned.
Maureen: “Mrs. Harris, Leslie’s not an American, is she?”
Leslie: “Yes, I am! I am, right mom? Right?”
Now, they have my attention. My memory is that my heart began to beat faster. Working to sound calm, I told Maureen that, yes, Leslie is an American. I asked why she thought she wasn’t. Without missing a beat and not letting go of me Maureen, triumphantly using her best and final argument, said,
“No she isn’t. She can’t be because Americans are white.”
Four years ago, as I watched tearily as President-elect Barak Obama stood at the podium in Grant Park, his face upturned to receive the love, I thought of that day at my kitchen sink. I pushed back the thought and tried to be in that glorious moment. But my amazement that my country had elected a non-white president was tempered with fear and caution.
My fears were obvious and broadly shared by those of us who’d come of age in the violent sixties. Of course he’d be assassinated. That’s the ultimate way our countrymen sometimes deal with what they don’t like when they can’t fix it any other way. We’ve always had madmen aplenty. But something more worried me. It was the dissonant stew of the Magical Negro, Never Good Enough and Not a REAL American – all mixed up together in a new paradigm. We’d never been here before. Through a nearly fluky combination of campaign and electoral circumstances America had elected its first black president.
The last four years have taught us much about the “what” of our feelings about having a president who doesn’t look like an American. Who might be a secret Muslim. Who might not have been born in America. Hawaii is even suspect as a birthplace: With all those brown people, is it really America? The esteemed Cokie Roberts once implied – to her ultimate embarrassment, I hope – that the new president was unwisely leaving the country when he went home to Hawaii on vacation. And we all learned that driving a stake into the heart of the birther movement was like shoveling sand in a gale.
As we struggled together through this most tedious, most costly and unfocused political campaign, the idea of a second term took on a special meaning for those of us who felt there was an element of an accidental presidency in that first win. In his insightful essay in Time Magazine, Touré outlines what some of us felt as we contemplated the idea of a second Obama term. Americans had learned that Barak Obama isn’t the Magical Negro. That means they had to decide whether he is Good Enough simply as a talented and fallible leader who disappoints at least half his base on any given day. And, in the deepest part of our hearts, we had to decide if he really is, after all – an American.
To answer this all the Republicans had to do was present the camera-ready Romney family with its traditional all-American good looks and wave a sign that said, Take Back America. We knew from whom. This campaign was as much about mostly unspoken assumptions about America as it was about any single issue.
In August, the right got unexpected help from one Milton Neutsch, Jr. of Victoria, Texas, when he put up a billboard with a bible verse that reads:
“Let his days be few, and let another take his office.”
When there were objections to using the bible for political purposes and for the violence against the president his message implied, he took it down and went it one better and put up a new one that said: "Vote for the American."
Of course I thought of my daughter’s friend Maureen and, once again I was standing at the kitchen sink wondering if those of us who are not white could ever be considered real Americans. Milton’s mean little sign made me unaccountably sad and its message stayed with me through the remaining months of the campaign.
I expected it to work. I figured that upon discovering that our president didn’t have superhuman powers like so many black superhero characters in the movies, liberal America would be ready to reject him in favor of a more familiar model. “Oh, well. We tried the colored guy and he turned out to be only human. Let’s move on.” My simple math convinced me that, among Democrats and independents, the combination of disillusioned, unrealistic and idealistic liberals, fickle youth and disengaged minorities would doom this president. On the other side, stunning amounts of unrestricted funds and a candidate who looked the part and talked the talk of every imaginable constituent convinced me there was no way to re-elect this president. Even with Republican candidates shooting themselves in the groin over rape at every opportunity, I didn’t think there was enough of that kind of ammo to do the job.
My defense position was that a loss could be a good thing for Obama since we face a future that is likely to be even worse than our recent past. Let Romney try to run the country like a business. I had funny images of him trying to fire entire government departments like the EPA and the FDA. As one of the 47% he disparages, I’d certainly be on his hit list but I still had a fatalistic interest in how a Romney administration might unfold.
So, imagine my surprise when President Barak Obama was unequivocally re-elected, thus avoiding being compared to Jimmy Carter for the rest of his life among other things. This time I laughed early and often as the returns began to come in. I didn’t feel moved or teary, just tickled at being so wrong. In the early part of the evening the laughter was at myself over my earnest cynicism – which, of course, was masking my expected disappointment. As the numbers piled up, I began talking to my countrymen.
“Hey, you know this guy is not perfect, right”
“Yea, we know but we’re sticking with him anyway. We don’t need no stinkin’ caped crusader. We just want the best person willing to do this really tough job.”
My last thought as I drifted off to sleep on election night was, “Holy Cow, they voted for the American.”
Lyn May is WWN's editor