Op-Eds In a World of Color, Change

Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2008

My elementary school teachers often told the class that any one of us kids could grow up and become president of the United States. They would invoke Harry Truman, the Everyman from Missouri. And of course Abraham Lincoln, his log cabin and all those miles he walked to school.

I was in second grade the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were killed, and from then on I was suspicious of the anyone-can-be-president cliche. But it wasn’t done with me.

I was often the only “minority” student in a classroom, owing to the uncommon demographic space my family occupied — brown and upwardly mobile. There wasn’t much of a Latino middle class in Los Angeles all those years ago. My young, liberal teachers hovered over me with platitudes about the great things I would achieve. Their desire probably said more about them than about me; most of them assumed I was a hardship case, rising up against the odds. It placed two burdens on me — of carrying the weight of difference, and of great expectations.

I loved and loathed the attention. I remember being intensely aware of the heat on my face. And of a sensation that I find terribly difficult to put into words even today: of not fitting inside my own body, that my skin could barely hold back my blood, like the skin of a sausage.

So I needed to succeed because I was a minority — which meant there was no failure like success, what with the doubt and resentment that shadow one’s accomplishments. (Was it because of affirmative action?) This was the unintended consequence of the liberal agenda on race. In this context, King’s dream of a just and equal society was unachievable because the vision itself seemed to emphasize difference. I was doomed to always be aware of the color of the hand I held in mine.

Accepting the spotlight my teachers had focused on me, I ran for student body president in the eighth grade at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Silver Lake. I ran as an intellectual, because that was the language I’d learned in the “gifted” classes (where I was, of course, the lone “Mexican”). My stump speech emphasized lofty ideals about education, while my competitors offered cliches about getting better food in the cafeteria. This was around the time that Jerry Brown became governor of California. That a former Jesuit seminarian with long hair and sideburns who dated a rock ‘n’ roll goddess could lead the Golden State seemed to augur well for my own electoral chances. But I lost.

I failed to carry even my homeroom because I didn’t invoke color. A mention of Cesar Chavez probably would’ve sufficed to rally the school’s Mexican and liberal gringo votes into a winning coalition. But as far as the brown kids were concerned, I’d gone over to the whiter side; and of course I didn’t fit the white kids’ image of the typical overachiever. I can point to this as the moment when resentment began to well up, and though I might have thought it was directed at my white or brown peers, it dug deepest into myself.

As a young writer and spoken-word artist in the 1980s and ’90s, I found that both liberal whites and “people of color” applauded when I claimed my brown-ness. Conservatives seethed, of course, but I didn’t need their “votes,” and their attention fed my ego as much as the sympathetic kind. Still, the louder the applause, the more I wondered about whether I’d entered into a Faustian bargain. In the end, embracing color left me as lost as having denied it, angrier at myself than ever.

A generation after I ran for student body president, Barack Obama appeared, offering a rhetorically fuzzy “hope” and a decidedly more powerful symbol in his very body. He addressed race only when he had to (the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.) because it was always implicit, from his improbable figure on the debate dais with his rivals for the Democratic nomination to the night he took the stage with John McCain for their first debate, the kind of “content of their character” scene presaged in the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Anyone who has ever felt in his own body the hot shame that awareness of color brings could not escape the myriad emotions that emerged in the course of Obama’s campaign. There was cynicism. I certainly believed the axiom that my generation — and who knew how many generations more to come — would not live to see a black man become president. (The realization that I’d abandoned all hope shames me to no end.)

Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses brought an oh-so-cautious optimism, and resurrected the ghosts of the past in fears over his safety. Then came Wright, and Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia. My wife and I watched it live as we spoon-fed our twin baby daughters. Obama’s attempt that morning to span the distance between his black pastor and his white grandmother — to span the distance between all of us “others” in America — brought tears to my eyes. (But I held them back.) It was a speech that addressed the confused kid who ran for student body president and the adult who’d endlessly wrestled with the contradiction of color.

Since then, Obama has had a long, exhausting dance with Hillary Rodham Clinton — a parody of all those years that white women and men “of color” jockeyed for position in the affirmative action stakes. The last few weeks have produced troubling encounters with McCain and Sarah Palin, which have once again let loose the old American rage against difference.

On the days when the prize seems to be within Obama’s reach, I often find myself imagining the moment that the first network “calls” the election. The wave of emotion begins as a physical sensation. It is as if a hole opens in the pit of my stomach and my entire body threatens to be swallowed by the vortex. An anxious exhilaration. Then, a quiet calm. And finally, a profound sadness. Because in that moment, the most powerful symbol yet that we are capable of achieving a just reckoning will be met by the full weight of America’s tragic past. Simplifying Obama’s complex identity — something that he, and we, have been doing all along — we will call him “the first black president.”

Much has been said about a “post-race” generation that Obama would seem to herald. But the very presence of the “r” word in the moniker tells us that there is more road left to travel. By insisting that we are past race, we betray how much it is still with us.

Which brings us to the intangibles of an Obama victory. What would it mean for the subject of race in America? Surely, some will see it as an opportunity to continue to open the kind of discursive space Obama himself did in Philadelphia. Others will no doubt declare the end of the story: If Obama can become president, then truly all barriers have fallen.

What difference will it make for my daughters to grow up pledging allegiance to a flag next to which hangs a portrait of Obama? Maybe, given the confluence of the economic crisis and this “historic election,” America will finally be able to speak about race and social class at the same time.

In focusing on these things, perhaps I reveal myself as hopelessly trapped in the world of color I grew up in. Or maybe I’m pointing out the possibility that instead of “post-race” we are actually “pre-race” — that is, on the verge of truly engaging the legacy of America’s “original sin” and the way its reverberations affect us even today.

But right now, days before the election, I feel more than I think. I am my body, my color, with all the great weight of its shame, with all the anger about how I came to believe what others believed about me, and yes, the hope that survived my cynicism.

I am taut with tension — as if I’m expecting a blow, as if I’m waiting for a storm to pass.