Bankole: What Obama means to black children
It is not the policy questions President Barack Obama grappled with during his time in office that black children as young as my 7-year-old will remember as he leaves office this week.
It is not the complex and fiery arguments he waged about the need for an Affordable Care Act, marriage equality or immigration reform with the Republican opposition and within the Democratic Party that will be etched in the children’s memories as they grow up.
Their recollection of Obama will not be the fact that his presidency was marked by dignity and a respect for our democracy even when some in the Democratic Party thought he was naïve for giving a dutiful ear to Republican leaders in Congress, despite their virulent opposition to his administration.
What my son and other black children will remember as they grow up is that there was a man named Barack Obama who was tall and black and was president of the United States.
That after 43 white men, a person who looked like them was elected twice to the presidency and lived in the White House built by slave labor.
That is why my child and others like him light up whenever they see Obama on television. They instantly recognize that face because he is one of them. He could be their father, uncle or distant relative.
That imagery alone is an inspiration for every black child growing up today in America. Because they saw something that some of their great-grandparents could not witness — the reality that America would select a black man as chief executive of a nation whose history is steeped in the practices of slavery and the corrosive Jim Crow era.
That cultural pride embodied in the Obama presidency enriches the socialization of black children and builds their confidence in their own innate abilities to excel to the highest levels in life standing on their merit and competence.
The message a black presidency sends these children is not only a positive one for racial identity, but it also influences their development through a powerful role model. That model extends into their respective schools where they can see pictures of Obama on the walls and in calendars showcasing the American presidents.
The long pilgrimage that led to an Obama presidency beginning from when the first black slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 is something we should celebrate.
While his two terms in office did not end racism — and it wasn’t meant to do that — it still shows how far this nation has come from its sordid past.
The end of the Obama era goes beyond debating his legacy around such structural issues as criminal justice reform, good schools or meaningful jobs.
It offers an instructive narrative for little black boys and girls who now know the potential to rise and follow their dreams has no limitations. These children know that they are endowed with gifts and abilities just as all others, and that, if nurtured properly in a conducive and requisite environment they too can become somebody, like the president, in the future.
Long before it became fashionable to even discuss the possibility of a black person becoming president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who himself staked a claim on the presidency with campaigns in 1984 and 1988, would always recite the poem “I Am Somebody,” at rallies to motivate young people.
Decades later, Obama would become the most vivid, poignant and commanding example of that poem for black children.
The Obama presidency meant different things to different people. But for black children, it is a strong sense of cultural pride and a tangible example of what they can strive to become.
And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stressed that point in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he said hoped his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910AM weekdays at noon. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.