Two years ago I decided to take my mother and my children to Toronto, Ontario, Canada for a brief vacation. America’s northern neighbor is a beautiful destination and I was excited to be a part of my children’s first foray to a foreign country. I was even more excited, though, about taking my then 81-year-old mother to Canada as she had never ventured beyond the United States’ borders. As we began to prepare for this trip I wanted to insure we had the documents necessary to drive in to, and out of, Canada. All that was needed, I learned, was a birth certificate and, for the adults, a photo identification.
Pleased with how easy this was proving to be, I called to notify my mother that she would need to bring her birth certificate. “I don’t have one,” she replied. My immediate response was for her to go get a duplicate and she patiently explained to me that she has never had a birth certificate. As far as she knew a birth certificate was never issued for her birth. I then began a prolonged series of telephone calls to determine how this could be resolved. Conversations with the state department of health left me feeling frustrated as they explained that the most expeditious method for obtaining her birth certificate would be to have someone who knew her as a child provide a notarized statement that she was born in the United States. This is no easy feat for someone who is 81. We did not go to Canada.
|Some of those who voted for Obama have been
systematically denied an identity and his election is their
opportunity to stand out from the crowd; to no longer be an incidental
player in the narrative of the United States.
Fast forward: The weekend prior to Obama’s inauguration I confirmed with my mother that hers was not a unique case in not being issued a birth certificate. Within hours she provided me the names of several of her contemporaries (with whom she had spoken) who, like her, did not exist in the eyes of our nation. Those fortunate enough to be allowed into a hospital to give birth were more fortunate in getting their birth recorded. Also, some black births were recognized when a census was conducted and white land-owners indicated that share croppers had children born to them. Unfortunately, this often resulted in names and birthdates being incorrectly recorded. One of my mother’s peers, upon receiving her birth certificate as an accomplished adult, saw that the wrong name was listed and then had to go through the process of changing her name. Sadly, however, black births were often left unnoted in the rural south.
I share this story because it, perhaps, tells us the most about what Barack Obama’s election means to our nation. His election has been analyzed from a variety of perspectives: historic; global; and certainly among African-Americans, a communal perspective. Yet I would argue that, for a generation, the most meaningful perspective on his election is to be had from a very personal angle.
We all recognize that the nation Obama inherited is fighting a dysfunctional economy, a specious war, staggeringly high unemployment rates, and other ills. Yet he is also inheriting a history wherein black births in the south were of so little consequence that they did not merit systemic recording. He is inheriting a nation that, less than 75 years ago in the south, would have likely lynched and, definitely imprisoned, Obama’s own father for having a relationship with his mother — a white woman. Anyone in our nation over the age of 80 has likely witnessed a segregated America as much as they have witnessed an integrated America. My mother can clearly recall life under Jim Crow and her entire American experience, from educational to employment opportunities, has been shaped by the inequities that defined the United States of America.
While we may know this as a nation, it is not something that is readily discussed. Many don’t want to remember America’s painful, bloody, and oppressive past. Yet, there are people, alive and well today, who experienced that past and to ignore it is to ignore them. To silence that portion of our history would be to silence those people. The nation has already disenfranchised some by not providing evidence of their existence. It would be a tragedy to, at this pivotal moment, ignore their unique perspective.
If Obama manages to stop the economic bleeding and triage the unemployment crisis he will, in many circles, be a success. But his task is much larger for some. For my mother, and many seniors in this nation, Obama represents a fundamental shift in self-understanding. I do not mean to intimate that there is an identity crisis among this group as I am not aware of such. These seniors who pre-date (and whose accomplishments, in my mind, exceed) those of “the greatest generation” know who they are. What they hope Obama will accomplish is to help the rest of the nation recognize who they are; that their efforts helped build this country; that they merit our respect; and that they are here as more than just a social security statistic. It was the labor, care, mercy and sacrifice of this group of people that created an environment wherein Martin Luther King, Jr. could dream and Obama could go on and live that dream.
A hallmark of Obama’s campaign, and certainly of his inauguration, has been the multitudes of people — of every race — who have come together to support him. We have all seen pictures of the throngs of people standing together as one. Yet I would caution Obama, and our nation, to recognize that there are individual people behind those crowds; people who deserve to be recognized on their own, not simply as one of many who voted for change. Some of those in the crowds, some of those who voted, have been systematically denied an identity and Obama’s election is their opportunity to stand out from the crowd; to no longer be an incidental player in the narrative of the United States. Many are looking to you, Mr. President, to finally offer them the nations’ recognition of their humanity.
This group, that has been so disenfranchised by the nation, has perhaps the highest stakes and greatest hopes for the Obama administration. As of November 4, 2008 my mother said that she can now look at my son and believe that he, too, can become President of the United States. Until that moment, she said, dreams for young black men were dependent on the will of God, not that of Americans. With Obama’s election a new world has opened up for many. No longer must a generation feel defined by the action, or worse, the inaction, of another group.
Many have written letters to their children about the historic nature of Obama’s presidency and the importance of this moment for future generations cannot be overstated. However, let us not forget the very personal importance of this moment for past generations. We should all be proud of this nation and our fellow citizens as we take this step forward. However, none have the right to be as proud as those who were systematically excluded from participation in America, much less in the American dream. For them, Obama’s election represents not only the right to a dream, but also the right to simply be.
Mary Hinton, PhD, is an assistant professor of religious studies and director of the core curriculum at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania.