Thanks to Barack Obama, I Know That America Belongs to Me

In fourth grade, whenever I got bored during Miss Lieber’s social studies class, I would flip to the back of my textbook and look at the pictures lining the back cover. There were 41 portraits, laid out in neat rows, with George Washington in the upper left corner and George H. W. Bush on the bottom right. As a filmstrip clicked away in the background, I would stare at the faces of these men, their names and party affiliations, the years they held office.

I never consciously acknowledged the fact that all these faces were white; it went without saying that they would be. Of course the person who held the nation’s highest office was white, would always be white. It was the same when I watched the news and Entertainment Tonight during dinner with my family every night: Of course the congressman waving to the camera as he headed into a building was white. Of course every movie star was white. Of course, of course, of course. It made sense, right? America belonged to white people. Families like mine were allowed to be here, tolerated as long as we didn’t complain or make trouble, as long as we were appropriately deferent to the white people who graciously allowed us to inhabit their space. But the thought of having power of any kind never crossed our minds; in order to have that, to have a say in how things were actually done, you had to be white. It was so obvious that it wasn’t even worth noting.

That was the way things were from my earliest memories into my adulthood. But then in 2004 — the summer after I graduated from college — an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. And in that moment, everything changed.

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