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A Landmark Election

By January 1, 2009 No Comments
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On a magnificent evening in early November, we rejoiced as our nation took a historic
step toward a new day. In Chicago we had a special opportunity to witness and participate
in this inspiring event. When the newly elected President and his beautiful family
walked onto that stage in Grant Park, tears were streaming down my face. Now, I have
never been able to get through one of Martin Luther King’s speeches on a PBS history program
without weeping, so this was not surprising. But looking more closely at the depth of
my emotion at that moment, I believe it is because the issue of race was the most profound
issue of my coming of age–and is so even to this day.

It doesn’t seem possible to young people today, I know, but there were still lynchings
of black men in the South when I was a youth (e.g., Emmett Till in 1955). My young
generation read about those atrocities in the Time and Life magazines of the day; we read
black poets and in college we composed poems about America’s dark legacy of racism. In
the summer of 1964 (the year of the landmark Voting Rights Act), as I hitchhiked through
parts of the South, I could still see “Colored Only” drinking fountains and bathrooms in
Arkansas, and many other signs of systemic segregation everywhere. With my long hair, I
must have been taken for a Northern agitator–during that summer when three civil rights
workers were killed in Mississippi–because I had a gun pulled on me in Memphis (though
it was nothing more than a scare tactic). We marched for civil rights during my college
years, but that did not make us courageous.

The civil rights cause was very important to me in the late 1960s and ’70s, both in my
own professional life (when I taught black literature in both university and adult-education
settings) and in my church life (Grace Christian Reformed in Grand Rapids), where
our family got to know black people not just as victims of a historical struggle but as true

Back to 2008: this landmark election in which Indiana voted for a Democrat for president
for only the second time since 1936, is also when Virginia turned “blue” for the first
time in forty-four years. During the Civil War, Virginia housed the capital of the Confederacy,
whose president, Jefferson Davis, said this: “The only use of a black man is to be a
slave.” Those who have argued for the Southern states’ right to fly the Confederate flag on
their capitols should remember that’s what it stands for. When Virginia and Florida (and
the next day North Carolina!) turned for Obama, we got an idea of how many people he had
attracted–even in the South.

My mixed-race grandnephew was down in Grant Park that election night and told me later
about our new “brown-skinned” president. Can he be oblivious to the fact that his mom is
the color of café au lait? Another six-year-old, a friend’s young grandson said: “Grandpa, is
it true that [Obama] is the first dark-skinned president?” This boy has had “dark-skinned”
teachers and classmates in the public schools, and two of his cousins are “dark-skinned.”
He added: “Do Liana and Brent [his cousins] know about that?”

I heard an NPR interview in which the actor Hugh Jackman said that, not that long ago
in Australia, a mixed-race child such as Barack Obama could have been taken away from
his parents. Jackman and his wife have adopted a biracial child, and when he watched
the American election returns he said: “He’s dark-skinned like me, isn’t he, Dad?” “Yes, he
is.” Beaming, this Australian tyke said, “That means he’s my president.” How many people
of mixed heritage–around the world–beamed with pride and jubilation at Obama’s election!

My middle-aged cousin said to me: “I would never vote for a person just because he is
black.” But just because a generation of Republicans have said they are “Christian” and
thus are against choice and gay marriage, she has voted for them. Perhaps she believed
some of the tracts sent out by Focus on the Family (one of its hateful messages was entitled
“7 Reasons Barack Obama is not a Christian”). On the other hand, my brother, who has
voted Republican for most of his adult life, chose Obama in this election–“for the sake of
the black children of America,” he said, expressing it more succinctly and eloquently than
I have here.

Almost half of the youngest generation of my extended family are “children of color,”
i.e., mixed-race children, “mutts” like Obama says he is. Astonishingly, most of them have
my late mother’s DNA (and thus mine) in them. Pondering what this Obama election means
to them would bring tears to anyone’s eyes. Viewing the faces in Grant Park that night, I
got a portrait of not only what our family looks like but what America looks like.

Reinder Van Til is an editor for Eerdmans Publishing Company who lives in Chicago, Illinois.