Four Days in November

“We need men who can dream of things that never were.” – John F. Kennedy

On the occasion of the anniversary of one of our nation’s darkest moments, I have an impulse to reflect. For a moment, let’s forget the conspiracies, the adultery, and legend of a curse. Let’s instead remember, that for a brief shining moment, there was a time referred to as Camelot (Thank you, Mrs. Kennedy).

I don’t want to talk about the fact that he was murdered–not yet. President Kennedy’s assassination is what history chooses to remember.  Lost as a footnote is that President Kennedy, Eternal Dreamer, tried his best to create an America that fit his vision, be it flawed or righteous. My view of history is not long as I’ve spent only three decades as its student. It is colored by the grainy black and white images of a motorcade, blood-stained pink suit, a wife cradling the head of her husband having herself tried to scurry over the trunk of the convertible. This was his last day.

But what of  his 1000 days in office?

We’re so soiled by the unforgiving mark of violence and the truths that tumbled out afterward, that we forget how this president and administration once sat comfortably in our fawning. It is often said that this is the president who inspired a generation. But what gave him such distinction? What was it about this wealthy son turned politician that moved a generation to become unmoored from apathy? And did we ever reach the high standards he boldly espoused?

It’s not as if John F. Kennedy appeared from a misty fog. This is a man whose future was assured from birth. History reminds repeatedly of the storied background of the legendary Kennedy family. Whispers of a fortune made nefariously surround that history. Yet, what family in these Americas who find themselves fortunate enough to be members of the 1 percent have not been made so on the backs and fears of others. It’s a symptom of white privilege. Perhaps the Kennedy family was visibly ruthless in his pursuits while others do so with backbiting smiles and false encouragements. He was given all the privileges of wealth, avenues to an education that shaped his enlightened vision of the world. Indeed, it is an easier life to pursue when money is of no consequence. John F. Kennedy pursued it with vigor.

I often wonder how much truth lived in President Kennedy’s loftier words. He challenged a nation to be its best self, while  faltering to his worst at times. He moved the nation to embrace the arts without cynicism and arrogance. He cautiously entered the Civil Rights arena in a deeply fractured, racially segregated country. He encouraged others to seek public service.

Mr. President, I am so proud of you.

For me, it started eight years ago at the Democratic National Convention to nominate Senator John Kerry as the representation of our best hope for shifting our country away for the doctrine of cynicism and war. I admit, I didn’t really connect with Sen. Kerry. He was, after all, another wealthy white man trying to speak to our worries and fears of the future without an ounce of charisma or real credibility. I didn’t knock him for what he lacked. I stood with him by campaigning and voting for him. You did the same, but this is where I first took notice of your particular brand of politics.

You were on deck to give the keynote address in that sea of hopeful people, citizens who were truly exhausted by the first four years of the Bush administration. We were all war-weary, and wary of what another four years of President Bush’s politics would mean for our country. These were people hungry for a hero. I don’t know if you knew it, but you walked onto stage and struck the right chord with your opening line: “Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.” 

I was sitting in front of my television, thinking exactly that. Your name had a foreign ring to it. They’d given us small details before you took the stage. A state senator from Chicago, you were the biracial son of an African-born father and a white American mother. I listened for more, thinking pragmatically, how is this possible? You told us gracefully: “My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or “blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success.”

I remember applauding like a school girl at those lines. In an intolerant America, unusual names are often associated with a lack of education and financial resources. A truer term would be ghetto. I had been carrying the weight of my own unusually spelled name for years. You spoke an ugly truth about a judgmental country intent on staying the same. Behind that podium, you demanded more of us. I appreciated you for it. I listened for more. Over and over, the idea of dreaming, the possibilities of reaching beyond your beginning to discover a successful middle and end touched my heart. I mean, how could one not hear the audacious hope here: Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.

You described the America I’d grown up in all too accurately. I understood that you knew what it was like to be a black child who wanted better for everyone, but couldn’t get a leg to stand on for themselves. I understood that even if you had lived decades before me, your compassion for my future was genuine. You spoke and I wondered why you weren’t the nominee for president. But then I remembered, black men don’t run for political office other than to show the establishment that our voices have to be heard as well. We didn’t typically expect any black candidate to ascend to the highest political office in our country. That’s just the truth.

However, you, like Dr. King, taught us to dream bigger. I believed in you that day. I’ve never stopped believing. And when you announced your candidacy for president, I admit that I was slightly ambivalent. You were running against a woman I admired greatly. You were both the highest ideal of who I wanted running our country. There was that awful primary season between the two of you. It split my heart in two. You all wanted the same things; I know you both had our bests interests in your hearts but only one person could represent us. I was tugged on both ends. To see a woman in a place garnering respect in the male-dominated political world gave such credibility to a belief in a better country. I know Hillary Clinton is/was more than capable of handling this country. I believe that she can still do so. You chose her for a prominent position in your administration, so I know that you also believe in her.

But, you…you grabbed my vote with your dedication to hope, to dreams. I recall that people made fun of you trying to inspire a generation using the avenues of possibility. I recall some pundits and politicians saying that you were just using words. They made light of their significance. But without words, without language, then we have nothing. We have to effectively communicate what ails us. Without language, we are a hopeless voiceless people. So, when you speak of hope, I hear that truth in it. After all, you, Mr. President, said it best: “There has never been anything false about hope.”

Personally, if you never say another word about taxes and immigration, any of those other social issues that people argue about, I wouldn’t mind. I didn’t vote for you because of those things. Though, they are issues that matter, they are not the supreme reason that I entrusted my vote for both times. I voted for you because I believe in your heart. I believe that you believe what you say.That’s all it takes with me. Integrity.

There are things that you have done that I disagree with strongly. It’s important to note that your convictions belong to you. I hold out for the most genuine you to occupy the White House these next four years. I think you have a strength that carries you through all the insanity of the office that you hold. Being the president, while it may be the most awesome job one might seek, is not a place that isn’t without cons. There are decisions that we don’t know about that you make daily. Your beautiful family has to share you. Your wife is expected to present herself as a role model even while others throw dirt at your names. Your children are open to the judgments and curiosity of the nation and beyond. None of these things are taken lightly.

I pray that you take everything that you believe and continue showing us how to believe and dream. After your re-election on Tuesday, many facets of racism crept up in my social media timelines. Many disturbing comments. It makes your election sweeter because you’ve seen all of these before and yet, you still believe and do your job daily.

People assume that black people voted solely on race. I just don’t believe that is the totality of our decision. Of course we voted with our hearts, but in the black community loyalty is utmost. If we actually felt that you weren’t in that office at least attempting to improve our lives, the black vote might have been smaller. It wasn’t. We understood that maybe Mr. Romney had the business background and a legacy to fulfill, but not our backs. We could read the truth in his 47 percent comment. We know that all of those coded words flung so destructively into the world meant that he was incapable of understanding how to help build the nation’s lower and middle classes because he saw as something other than human. And even with all of those ugly moments, you withstood all that they had to say about you. It makes you exactly who I thought you were in 2004.

It’s 2012. I am tired of being denied. The denial of the dreams of our ancestors, taking away our leaders, leaving us as aimless orphans. 2008 showed me a side of this country I never thought I would see. I started to see integrity in my white brethren, not only because they voted so overwhelmingly for you but because they stood to defend you when others used racially charged language to discredit you. We were standing across this nation as one people. It was awesome. It can be again. You can do this. I know you can bridge the divide and inspire another generation to leave this country better off than they found it.

Mr. President, I am truly proud of you.